‘As long as they run, they still have value’

Published on 31 October 2018

As you probably know, ARN takes care of recycling cars and scooters in the Netherlands. But what happens to all the other Dutch vehicles when they’ve reached the end of their useful lives? Where do the boats, aircrafts and bicycles go? That’s the question we’ll be answering in the ‘Recycled goods’ series. In this edition, we’ll start off by diving into the second -- and third and fourth -- lives of buses and trucks.


Tekst Jens Holierhoek

The image may be a familiar one, thanks to a recent vacation. There you sit, mojito in hand, gazing out over the boulevard in Havana -- when suddenly a (practically antique) Dutch city bus chugs its way across the Caribbean street scene. While you might think the bus is there for the same reason as the classic Cadillacs, Plymouths and Chevrolets you see, nothing could be farther from the truth. Because although old Dutch city and regional transport vehicles have been deployed in Cuba since 1991, Connexxion’s fully depreciated vehicles also travel to other countries all around the world. As a result, and thanks to the now-stuck rotating destination signs, you can board a bus to Hoogezand or Zwijndrecht in Croatia, Romania and North Africa -- and other places, too.

Turning point

The incredible popularity of fully depreciated city and regional buses from ‘Holland’ in distant (and not-so distant) countries is mostly down to the average term of depreciation in the Netherlands. For diesel vehicles here in the low countries, this is typically around ten years.

The incredible popularity of fully depreciated city and regional buses from ‘Holland’ in distant (and not-so distant) countries is mostly down to the average term of depreciation in the Netherlands

According to our Western cost model, a bus hits the turning point in value after only a single decade. For users in many foreign countries, however, such a bus remains a good investment -- which has led to a flourishing trade in these vehicles.

Lifespan

A similar story can be told about trucks. According to ARN Commissioner John van Est (who also owns Van Est Trading, which specialises in trucks and lorries), Dutch trucks are typically ‘put out to pasture’ after only five to seven years. Fairly quickly, in other words. And long before they’re ready to be recycled. Van Est explains, “As long as they run, they still have value.” The major differences between buses, trucks (and other heavy machinery such as excavators) and personal vehicles are the purchase cost and the lifespan. “A bus or truck requires a much heftier investment than your average car. It will last longer as well. Nobody bats an eye when a truck has a million or million and a half kilometres on the odometer,” according to Van Est.

Popular

It’s no coincidence that the Netherlands is an important hub for reselling busses, heavy trucks and lorries. Like we said, Dutch businesses tend to depreciate their vehicles relatively quickly. But there’s more to it than that: Dutch owners also take extremely good care of their equipment. The factory-recommended maintenance intervals are faithfully observed, and you’ll find barely a flake of rust (unlike on vehicles driven in the salt air of Scandinavian countries). Other countries view second-hand buses and trucks from the Netherlands and Germany as a great investment. Our parts are eagerly sought-after as well.

Other countries view second-hand buses and trucks from the Netherlands and Germany as a great investment. Our parts are eagerly sought-after as well

Mestebeld, with offices in Zwolle and Lemerveld, and BAS Trucks from Veghel are well-known names in the used-truck industry. Both companies buy and sell parts, too. This is also the specialty of the aptly-named Vos Truckparts in Hedel, one of the largest truck dismantling companies in Europe.

Déjà vu

The youngest of our used trucks and buses are usually headed for the European market. That might mean former members of the Eastern Bloc, or Southern Europe. Remarkably often, these trucks and buses will return to the Netherlands after that second life. Blessed with entrepreneurial acumen and solid contacts in regions including Africa and South America, Dutch business owners are happy to arrange a third life for the vehicles. Or even a fourth.
In real-world practice, Van Est sees that trucks often change hands multiple times over the course of their useful life. “As long as a vehicle has all its parts, someone will want it. A bus or truck may see up to thirty years of use.” This is because a vehicle considered ‘old’ in the Netherlands can be used in Portugal or Greece until it’s declared ancient -- at which point it’s still got some 15 years of useful life ahead of it in Africa. In some parts of the world, a lack of strict environmental standards means that older trucks and buses are still being welcomed with open arms. Often, these vehicles are still in good condition and cleaner than most of the buses or trucks in the new home fleet.

Trade restrictions can sometimes present an obstacle For example: a number of African countries decided (without staggered implementation) to adopt the Euro 5 standards, making the import of vehicles prohibitively expensive for local business owners. This is because buses and trucks that meet the Euro 5 standard are still relatively new and therefore costly. Another precondition for a healthy market for second or third-hand vehicles is a solid network of maintenance partners. After all, these ‘seniors’ can stay up and running for years to come only if the spare parts they need are available in their new countries.

Sum of its parts

While the idea is that every older bus or truck should get a second lease on life, this isn’t always possible. Damaged vehicles, for instance, are out of luck. Still, a battered bus or truck will rarely wind up whole in the junkyard. Any parts in good working order will be salvaged and reused. This can be quite lucrative, especially when those parts are hard to find. Many times, in fact, the combined value of the salvaged parts will be greater than if the damaged truck were sold as a whole.

Worth its weight in gold

That an eager market awaits fully-depreciated heavy transport vehicles from the West in other countries is evident when you look at auctions of the world-famous yellow American school buses. People come from far and wide to bid at auctions scattered throughout the US. And it’s no wonder, since a bus with nearly 250,000 kilometres on the odometer typically costs between 2,500 and 5,000 dollars. A steal, compared to the new purchase price of the same bus ten years prior: 70,000 dollars. For transport companies in less-prosperous nations in Africa and Central America, such a bus is a godsend. “We drive ‘em until they just plain quit,” is often heard at the bus auctions. And it’s not unusual for a bidder to bring along a small army of bus drivers, to immediately climb in and drive the buses back home -- which is often somewhere in the heart of Central America. Even if the trip is a harrowing eight-day journey through dangerous territory. Once they reach their new home, the American school buses are typically in for a make-over: a different colour, new upholstery or even an entirely new frame shape. In Guatemala, for instance, they shorten the buses to make it easier to turn around in the narrow streets.

Recycling

But then there comes a day, maybe thirty years on, when a bus or lorry has been sold on multiple times and has finally reached the end of the line. Its wheels no longer turn. At that point, recycling is an option. According to the manufacturer Volvo Trucks, its heavy trucks consist of 87% metal, mostly iron and aluminium. And most of that can be reused. Taking all the plastic and rubber into account, the Swedish company emphasises, a truck is 90% recyclable. Every new Volvo truck contains one-third of its total weight in recycled material. Which begs the question: who recycles these trucks after they’ve criss-crossed the globe? Ideally, this will take place locally -- which is why Volvo has agreements in place with local recycling partners. Volvo has also published specific dismantling manuals for each of its truck models. In the manuals, a colour code indicates the exact material used to make each part. This helps make sure that after a second or third life, there’s a fourth life on the horizon ahead for individual parts.