The automotive industry is an innovator when it comes to car recycling and other industries could do well to follow their example.
September 19, 2019
Between sales slumps, low consumer confidence and the challenges of adapting to stricter emissions regulations, the automotive industry does not generate a lot of positive press. Yet when it comes to recycling, the sector has undoubtedly shown itself to be an innovator.
Responding to the rising financial and environmental costs of creating materials from scratch, developed countries have put a premium on finding a use for scrap rather than wastefully consigning it to landfill.
What gets recycled?
Vehicles are arguably the most commonly recycled consumer products in existence today. Within the vehicle ecosystem, auto-recyclers like Tear-A-Part do the environment a service by buying up cars at the end of their life spans, carefully disposing of contaminants (fuel, oil, coolant, batteries, windscreen wash), salvaging premium components and recycling the metals used in its manufacture.
In the USA alone, 95% of end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) are recycled year on year. For any given ELV, around 80-90% of its components and parts can be recovered. Most of this is metals (65% of the average car is made of steel). As well as recovering 76 million tons of steel and iron every year, salvagers recycle major car parts like tires and wheels, batteries, radiators, transmission systems, oil filters, rubber hoses. The interior of a car is also no exception with carpets, car seats, car mats and even seatbelts getting a new lease of life.
Interestingly, recycled car materials don’t always end up in cars. One of the most common uses for old tires is as pavement bases in road construction. Window shield glass has a wide range of applications from glass beads, countertops, tile flooring, and porcelain.
How do they do it?
When it comes to selling an ELV, there’s a range of businesses out there. As vehicles reach the end of their life span, owners can take them to recycling facilities for inspection to determine whether the car has more value as a functioning vehicle or as parts.
Draining dangerous fluids
A car needs dozens of fluids to keep its wheels moving. At the end of its life span, these have to go somewhere. One of the first things auto-recyclers have to do is safely drain and dispose of these. Brake and transmissions fluids, lubricants, antifreeze, and windscreen wash are commonly separated for safe disposal. Mercury is also another metal that needs to be carefully contained. Oil and gas, however, are generally siphoned off for reuse.
Lifting the engine and transmission
Once these potentially hazardous and pollutant liquids are safely out of the way, auto-recyclers will lift the car engine and transmission off its chassis. At this point, other important components (tires, batteries, and radiators) will be removed either to be broken down into base materials or resold and refitted to other cars.
Crushing and shredding
This is the image that comes to mind when people think about scrapping cars. When all that’s left is the body of the vehicle, it’s crushed into a more manageable chunk (roughly resembling a cube). These chunks are shipped off to recycling centers where they can be shredded and processed into different types of metal for industry use.
Ferrous metals like steel and iron are typically separated from non-ferrous metals like aluminum. When these metals have been sorted and recovered, all that remains of the vehicle is a few scraps of automotive shredder residue.
Once upon a time, this would have gone to waste, but thanks to recent advances, more of this is going on to good uses. For instance, plastic residues can be converted into synthetic crude oil.
The environmental benefits
Did you know that reusing old steel uses 74% less energy than making it from scratch? Recycling cars reduces the need to manufacture new metals, still mostly produced using fossil fuels. Less energy means fewer harmful CO2 emissions as well.
Another benefit of recycling cars in this way is the conservation of natural resources by limiting the need to mine for new materials. There’s also the added benefit of less landfill waste and the reduction of harmful materials entering the environment.
The economics of recycling
Along with the obvious environmental benefits, recycling cars has a massive impact on the US economy, making up its 16th largest industry and contributing $25 billion per annum to GDP every year.
Recycling auto parts is labor-intensive and difficult to automate, requiring human eyes and special skills. In the USA, it accounts for 140,000 jobs and a high level of worker ownership. This means more money in the pockets of people likely to spend it.
There are major benefits for the consumer too. Automotive recyclers can afford to offer quality parts at 20-80% of the cost of a new part.
Recycling is here to stay
Auto-recycling is keeping pace with changing times, becoming more efficient, clean, and economical with each passing year.
Alec Neufeld is a retired builder, now freelance writer and part-time general fix it man. He has strong opinions on the use of alternate energy and is also an avid sports enthusiast.