Written by: Gabe Vargas
Odds are you have never thought about what happens to your car at the end of its life. You might imagine an immense scrap yard filled with massive rusting masses or maybe an industrial crusher that leaves behind hundreds of metal cubes in a landfill. Luckily our cars and trucks have a possibly different fate to consider—recycling!
What is Vehicle Recycling?
The most basic definition is:
‘The dismantling of vehicles for spare parts. At the end of their useful life, vehicles have value as a source of spare parts, and this has created a vehicle dismantling industry.’
And yes, there is an entire industry that exists solely to recycle your car!
Currently, approximately 13 million vehicles are recycled each year saving around 86% of the materials from each vehicle. Not to mention, this industry is becoming more efficient over time, meaning those numbers will keep increasing!
How Do We Recycle Vehicles?
For most people, the answer is as simple as giving their car or truck to a junkyard, or scrap yard. After this point, the car owner has done all they can for the environment, but how do these services recycle all of the parts of the car?
Dismantling is the first step of this process. At this phase, any usable parts are taken from the vehicle for resale or remanufacturing. Parts such as trunk lids, gas tanks, and door panels can be reused if they are undamaged. By not having to make new parts, this saves energy via the manufacturing process and prevents the mining and creating of new resources from the environment.
Remanufacturing is the next step in the vehicle recycling industry. This phase has many inspections, repairs, and minor replacements for subcomponents to ensure safety once parts are reused. These parts are often used in repairs of older vehicles, but can sometimes be used in brand new cars or trucks. Components such as engines, transmissions, brake systems, and water pumps are collected for this step. Remanufacturing is responsible for more than 90% of all replacement starters and alternators. Other pieces such as batteries and catalytic converters are neutralized, smelted, and remade into products. The lead is reused in new car parts, the plastic is integrated into fender liners, and precious metals are separated and sold to various other markets. This is the fate for over 95% of car batteries and catalytic converters.
Shredding is the last stage of recycling. While this stage of the industry is still growing and improving, there are currently over 200 shredding facilities in the US alone. All metal is hammered and milled into roughly fist-sized chunks and then separated into ferrous and non-ferrous metals with a magnet. Other materials, such as plastic, can also be separated in this process—though it is slightly less successful at this time. Even so, about 75% of plastic can still be separated from this shredding process and blended with new plastics in manufacturing. Shredders also help save ferrous and nonferrous metals more efficiently. Metals like copper, nickel, aluminum, and zinc are conserved leading to over 400 million tons of scrap to be recycled and reused each year.
I reached out to SellMax, a car buying service in San Jose, and they stated that 86% of the materials in your car is recycled with most of it going into manufacturing new vehicles. This process reuses 18 million tons of steel alone, but also smelts the aluminum and lead found in vehicles as well. Most often the lead acid batteries that are dismantled are reprocessed and made into new car batteries.
Other components that are undamaged can be reused as well. Un-released airbags, bumpers, mirrors, rims, seats, and even oil can be repurposed, to name a few.
Another part of vehicles that is dismantled for recycling are tires. Although not directly used for the remanufacturing of new vehicles, the rubber and metals from tires find their way into asphalt, playground parts, railway lines, shoes, flooring, and so much more!
There Are More Environmental Benefits to Vehicle Recycling!
By recycling your vehicle, you save:
- 100.8 million gallons of gasoline and diesel
- 24 million gallons of motor oil
- 8 million gallons of engine coolant
- 4.5 million gallons of washer fluid
In the process of recycling vehicles, other toxic fluids are properly drained and disposed of preventing them from leaking into the environment. Steering gear oil, transmission fluid, and any remaining fuel are some examples of the liquids that never reach the water shed when a vehicle is recycled. Thanks to the EPA guidelines for storage, such as being stowed off the ground and on solid concrete pads, there is no risk of flood or rainstorm effecting ecology in between the stages of vehicle recycling.
In total, vehicle recycling in the US and Canada alone creates 13 million new vehicles with the amount of steel saved. That is 95% of all scrapped cars compared to only 50% of all aluminum cans produced. Furthermore, not having to start from scratch with manufacturing means approximately 85 million barrels of oil are saved, making this an even more eco-friendly choice! Additionally, this process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30 million metric tons!
Other Benefits to Recycling Vehicles
Beyond less strain on the environment and saving resources, there is an economic benefit to recycling too. Sustainability does not just mean ecologically beneficial. In order for that term to apply, the process must also be economically attractive and promote the welfare of society.
The infrastructure and economy around vehicle recycling is completely self-supporting; it even provides a profit at each stage of the process.
This self-supporting nature not only means a stable and growing workforce at the over 15,000 automotive dismantlers in the United States, but also means no cost to the consumer or taxpayer. That means no cost to you!
In fact, this might reduce the cost of vehicles over time. As more parts can be collected, disposal costs go down—and since that is the costliest part of this process, prices may diminish as more efficient technology is created.
Vehicle Recycling is the Easiest Way to Go Green!
The average American will own about 12 vehicles in their lifetime—that’s nearly 13.75 metric tons waste alone! Because of this, many manufacturers, environmentalists, and wrecking yards are working together to get this message out. Even at the beginning of the car buying experience, they want you to think about what happens at the end of its lifecycle.
This process is so much easier than trying to recycle any other daily waste, and the industry built around it is more efficient at separating out all of the parts than any one of us alone could. No need to put plastic, glass, and metal in separate bins. All you, as a consumer, has to do is find the right junk yard and the rest will be taken care of.
With one simple choice, you can help save 1.3 tons of potential garbage and give it a new life on the road. Who knows, you might even get a repair made from your first recycled car in the future! Hopefully, you have learned a bit more about this industry and maybe have even been convinced to recycle your old car. The Earth would thank you for the help.
P.S. If you decide to recycle your car, you can do a quick Google search to find a company in your area that will repurpose it. One company you can try is SellMax, a nationwide car recycler. You may also choose to donate your car to organizations such as Wheels For Wishes.