New Power for 'Old Europe'
A Car's Life
Jean Tinguely was a Swiss sculptor renowned for his grand mechanical creations, huge machines full of whirring wheels and gears that were designed to self-destruct. His works, widely dispersed through Europe's finer art institutions--and showing up more rarely in the United States--evoke a kind of grinding perfection, a speed-up of what is built into every mechanical device: its own death. Much like the automobile, which may purr steadily for ten or twenty years or even longer. But ultimately those gears and crankshafts, like a Tinguely machine, will fail, and the automobile will die. Then what happens?
Every year aging cars, left to decay in scrapyards or fields or suburban driveways, create more than 15 million tons of waste across the United States and Europe. Many components in those autos contain toxic ingredients, including metals like lead, mercury, chromium and cadmium, which are known to induce problems such as nerve damage and cancer in laboratory animals. The plastic in the seats and dashboards never biodegrades. Cars and their component parts are left to despoil the landscape, leach into the soil and poison groundwater. There is nothing to stop them.
Across the Atlantic, the EU has implemented a program with the oddly philosophical title "End of Life Vehicles Directive." Starting in 2006, all cars produced or sold in the EU must be built with at least 85 percent recyclable components; by 2015 that figure rises to 95 percent. The directive also bans toxic heavy metals like cadmium and requires that manufacturers take responsibility for disposing of their cars. According to the European Commission's administrator for the vehicles program, Rosalinde van der Vlies, European, Japanese and Korean car manufacturers are already beginning to adapt their production processes in anticipation of the new requirements.
For US car manufacturers the directive presents a historic challenge. American car companies export virtually no cars to Europe; thus US manufacturers are under little direct pressure to adapt to European standards. But each of the US Big Three has substantial ties to the European market: Ford has its own Ford Europe production facilities and owns the Jaguar line in Britain. General Motors owns the German Opel, the Swedish Saab and produces its own line of vehicles in Britain under the Vauxhall label. DaimlerChrysler is owned by the German manufacturer Daimler-Benz.
Glenn Mercer, an auto industry analyst for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, says there is no sign of these reforms' being instituted by either US parent or subsidiary companies, nor is a serious effort being made to develop alternatives to the toxic chemicals included in American cars. The concept of being responsible for the ultimate disposal of those cars has been received in this country like a message from another planet.
Mercer comments: "Every time you drive a car you've made a decision to pollute. With every car, you have the decision: Do you dispose of it in a controlled setting, as required by the European Union? Do you find alternatives to the chemicals and take the hit on sales that may result from a higher price? Or do you leave them in your car, and have them dispose themselves into the environment over fifteen years?" Thus far, the United States has been taking the latter approach--dual production according to dueling standards.
At the core of the EU's regulatory approach is what van der Vlies calls "life cycle analysis": assessing the actual costs over the lifetime of consumer products, from their creation to their demise. The End of Life Vehicles Directive is intended to insure that those costs are shared by the manufacturer--while providing a powerful incentive to develop more sustainable alternatives.
Every European diplomat I spoke with was careful to insist that Europe's new generation of environmental directives is not intended to "impose" Europe's will upon the United States. Camilo Barcia Garcia-Villamil, the Spanish consul in San Francisco, who spent fifteen years working with the EU in Brussels, comments: "The European Union now has increased decision-making capacity. And if American companies want to be active in the European market, they must take account of European rules. We are not imposing our standards. We are making foreign companies respect our standards when they are in Europe." This is diplomatic language that is new in the context of transatlantic relations--though its inverted formulation would be quite familiar to generations of postwar American policy-makers.
"Economically, Europe stands toe to toe with the United States," says Clyde Prestowitz, now head of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. "We can't dictate to it any longer. We have to negotiate."