Paving the Way for the Future

by Ron Fisher—

Is it time for our industry to clean up the messes in our own backyard?

In more remote locations, you will often see the rustling hulks of automotive history becoming homes to rodents and becoming part of the landscape.

In more remote locations, you will often see the rustling hulks of automotive history becoming homes to rodents and becoming part of the landscape.

What is the one thing most of us, in every division of the automotive industry, have in common? That’s right, it is the love of the automobile. Whether you work in the dealership network, in auto recycling, collision re‑pair, or towing, you probably were attracted to your job because you liked being around cars.

People who love cars think of them as more than simply a mode of transportation. They are almost like living beings in the eyes of many enthusiasts. In the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, the star was a green mustang named Eleanor. How many people name their cars, or track history by saying things like, “That happened when I had the ’70 340 Duster.” Memories and lives are caught up in the history of people’s wheels.

ELVs in the Forest

Speaking of history, in British Columbia, we have a history of abandonment when it comes to cars reaching the end of their lives in remote locations. In the urban environment, the local scrapyard is, well, local. So, it is easy to drive your dying car over to the yard and get some cash, or, if it is lifeless, get the scrap dealer to pick it up. Many new car dealers have “push, pull, and drag” sales, which also help get end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) off the road.

But in more remote locations, you will often see the rusting hulks of automotive history becoming homes to rodents and becoming part of the landscape. There is a movement underway by the Automotive Recyclers Environmental Association (AREA) to change that, to take ownership of the problem of disposing of end-of-life vehicles. Presently, Colin McKean, executive director of AREA, is working with First Nations and Aboriginal communities, the Kidney Foundation, and the B.C. government to put a program in place to remove and recycle these vehicles.

Small communities may only have 80 people, but they’ll have 100 cars.

“There are communities where there are more cars than people. They’re small communities, and may only have 80 people living there, but they’ll have 100 cars,” says McKean. “Processing ELVs works great in urban areas, and works pretty well in rural areas, because the car still has value. But it doesn’t work in remote communities as the transportation costs are so high to get the product to market; by the time it gets there, it’s got a negative value.”

This is where the partnership comes in between AREA, the Kidney Car Foundation of Canada, and Schnitzer Steel. These partners are working on getting these vehicles removed from remote areas and recycling them, with Schnitzer providing the equipment and expertise and making a donation to the Kidney Foundation for every tonne of metal removed and recycled.

Industry Responsibility

AREA is taking a proactive approach before government steps in and dictates to the industry how the issue will be handled, and AREA is looking for support from the automotive community. The avenue of this support is not defined at this moment, and AREA would like to gain ideas from the industry on how that might look.

One of the simple solutions often raised is putting a small, voluntary environmental levy in place to pay for disposal programs. Unfortunately, the idea of adding what many people see as another tax makes it a hard sell. The question becomes if not a levy, then what?

Many would argue that abandoned cars are not our problem but rather are the owners’ responsibility. But there is a bigger question here: does an industry, and the people who earn a living from that industry, have a social and moral responsibility to ensure that the product they sell and earn a living from is dealt with responsibly at the end of its life?

This goes for any product, not just the automobile. Given the fragile state of our environment and the proliferation of products with built-in obsolescence, perhaps we in our throwaway society need to become more accountable. In my childhood, refrigerators lasted for 30 years; they now last five. Some argue that technology is evolving so quickly and the costs are so reduced that it is simpler and cheaper to replace products rather than repair them. But what about the electronics, appliances, and cars that are left behind? Granted, they are not human so they do not have abandonment issues, but our children deserve not to drown in our mess. We teach our kids to clean up their rooms—should we not clean up our own backyards?

This brings us back to the question at hand. Should the automotive industry collectively unite around this issue and work together to clean up remote areas that are cluttered with end-of-life vehicles? We all make our living off these fantastic machines, so why shouldn’t we work together to put them back into the system as new vehicles, new toasters, or whatever their recycled metal becomes?

Do the people who earn a living from an industry have a social and moral responsibility?

Has the time come for our industry to show true leadership and take the initiative that many other industries have not? Should we become proactively involved in the stewardship of all of our products as part of our commitment to the environment and future generations?

We are spending billions within our industry on research and development for the future. Look at the rapid development we have seen with hybrids and electric cars. The Tesla, which was just an engineer’s dream ten years ago, is becoming a common sight on city streets. If we are spending all this money and effort to further the future of our industry and protect the environment for our children, is it not a logical next step to make sure we clean up our messes from the past?

Let’s Talk

My hope is that this article will stimulate some conversations within our industry. My hope is that the different sectors of our industry will look at this issue and see how we could use it as a catalyst to strengthen our relationships and form a partnership to achieve a common goal. That goal is to be responsible for the impact our industry has on the environment and on communities, without needing to be pressured by government. That may be idealistic, but what if the automotive industry paved the way for other industries to take a similar approach?

Our children deserve not to drown in our mess.

Let’s face it. The automobile changed the world and brought about much innovation. Perhaps it is time for the automotive industry to change the business world and be innovative in another way. What’s the first step? Having conversations about this issue through organizations such as AREA and the Automotive Retailers Association. What future do you want for our children?

In addition to being the director of operations for Quality Recycled Parts BC (qrpbc.com), Ron Fisher is the owner of Fisher Resolution (fisherresolution.com), a company specializing in mediation and workplace conflict issues. He can be reached at ron@fisherresolution.com

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Collision Quarterly.

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