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End Life of a Vehicle – The Automobile Recycling Process

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What Happens at the End Life of a Vehicle

We all love our cars when they’re shiny and new, but eventually that shine wears off until one day your car is done. When your car isn’t safe to drive and no amount of repair work will get that old car back on the road, it has reached its end life. Now it starts down a new path that that will see your once beloved car destroyed. It’s a sad day, but the news isn’t all bad.

Cars are essentially big hunks of metal, which may have you fearing that your precious will end up rotting away in a junkyard as an eyesore polluting the environment and serving as home to a bunch of field mice. This might make the mice happy, but it’s not at all good for the planet.

Back in the 1960’s, there were over eight million vehicles sitting in lots waiting to be scrapped. You may even have seen these lots as they were often located along the sides of the nation’s highways. That’s not the case at all these days. Automotive recycling is big business and it takes great pains to handle end life cars in an environmentally responsible manner and to dispose of them quickly and efficiently.  

Automobiles are the single most recycled consumer product in the world and the industry is the 16th largest in the United States. We recycle more of our cars than we do paper or aluminum cans or glass. Think on that the next time you see all those recycling bins lined up at the curb on trash day.

The automotive recycling industry is huge, adding $25 billion to the country’s GDP and employing 100,000 people. Vehicles recycled in the US end up at one of 7,000 recycling facilities located throughout country. No matter where you live, your junk car can easily be recycled rather than ending up a rusted, abandoned relic.

Roughly 12 million vehicles reach their end life every year. The number of vehicles recycled in the US and Canada alone provides enough steel to build 13 million new vehicles. Not only does recycling end life cars reduce the waste and pollution created by dumping them instead, it eliminates the need for 85 million barrels of oil that would otherwise be used to make new and replacement car parts. It even reduces air and water pollution making the entire process much more environmentally friendly than those lots of rusted cars from the Sixties.

Cars are such recycling-rich targets because they’re made from so much metal. The US auto industry accounts for 20 percent of all domestic steel use and one third of domestic aluminum use, so making sure that metal is all reclaimed is important.

Your car’s metal breakdown comes to 70 percent ferrous metal that includes sheet steel, steel, and cast iron and 6 percent non-ferrous metal like aluminum, copper and zinc. This is all recyclable material.

Combine every recyclable component of a car, metal or otherwise, and you’re looking at over 25 million tons of recycled materials every single year just from end life vehicles. That’s waste and toxic chemicals that would otherwise be polluting the environment. Saying goodbye to your old set of wheels isn’t so bad when you know much of it will go on to see a new life in new products rather than sitting in a landfill.

You’ll find the metal recycled from your car used in the most unlikely of new products. It’s in the household batteries that power everything from flashlights to cameras to the wireless mouse you use to surf the Internet. Recycled automotive metal is also used in building construction and sometimes even goes right back into new vehicles. The car you get rid of today could end up being a part of the new car you end up buying tomorrow.

It’s not just the metal components of your car that can be recycled. Roughly 86 percent of a car’s total materials are eligible for recycling. Whatever is left of the old carpet, for example, can be used in air cleaner assemblies and engine fan modules. Old tires can either be reused if they’re in acceptable condition or used to make new brake pedals and floor mats. As much as possible, every last piece of an end life vehicle is recycled rather than tossed aside.

The whole process starts with removing the largest parts of your car. This big stuff includes things like the engine, transmission, doors, and even that scratched bumper. These can often be recycled directly for use in other vehicles without needing to be melted down and recast.

The same goes for a car’s starter, alternator, and water pump, which can be remanufactured. Even those grubby seats, the gas tank, the stereo, and your old car battery can be removed and resold rather than finding their way into a landfill or junkyard.

As you might imagine, there are also lots of fluids to manage through the process. During the initial dismantling of an end life vehicle, all of its fluids are collected. This includes engine oil, coolant, diesel fuel, and gasoline.

Your car isn’t just heedlessly torn apart. It is carefully disassembled to collect all the car’s fluids and keep them from getting into the environment where they could pollute the ground and water. All those fluids are then stored in tanks and safely contained until they can also be reused or recycled.

Even the last little bit of windshield washer fluid in the bottom of that reservoir is removed and stored before a car is taken apart. All told, the equivalent of 8 Exxon Valdez disasters worth of hazardous fluids is reclaimed from end life vehicles every year.

The Automotive Recycler’s Association estimates that the industry collects 100.8 million gallons of fuel, 24 million gallons of motor oil, 8 million gallons of coolant, and 45 million gallons of windshield washer fluid annually. Those are staggering numbers and show the importance of selling your end life car to a reputable buyer who will ensure your vehicle is properly recycled. Without recycling efforts, those contaminants would be a dangerous source of pollution.

Once a vehicle has been disassembled and fluids have been collected, what’s left is sent to shredding facilities. These facilities have specialized equipment that pulverize vehicles at a rate of four vehicles per minute. This turns the final remains of your old car into chunks roughly the size of your fist. These chunks still aren’t the end of the line for your old vehicle.

The pulverized bits travel along conveyors where they’re sorted even further using magnetic separation, eddy current, laser, and even infrared systems. It’s a very high-tech process designed to reclaim every possible bit of an end life car, which is good for the environment and for the automotive recycling industry.

The metal recovered at shredding facilities in turn becomes raw materials at factories. Steel mills, electric arc furnaces, and various smelters take that metal and use it in new products. In fact, roughly half of the new steel produced in North America today is made from recycled materials.

A ton of new steel made from recycled pieces of scrap steel rather than starting fresh with iron ore conserves 2,500 pounds of ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone. Recycling end life vehicles not only prevents cars from becoming nothing more than rusting hulks, it provides far-reaching financial and environmental benefits.

Knowing your car will be properly disposed of makes the decision to sell it easier, but there’s another good reason to say goodbye. End life vehicle aren’t safe. These are vehicles on which repairs can no longer effectively be made, which means having that vehicle on the road is a hazard. Selling it before it ends up breaking down and causing a problem helps reduce accident rates and makes all of us safer.

Despite the industry’s best efforts, there is still some material from end life vehicles that cannot be recycled. It’s called Automotive Shredder Residue (ASR) and it generally ends up in a landfill. The auto industry is working with recyclers to reduce the amount of ASR and make vehicles less hazardous to the environment. Current recycling efforts have already kept 9,000 pounds of mercury out of the environment and the industry is working to get rid of the last trace amounts of mercury found in our cars.

In addition to eliminating dangerous materials from cars, automakers are also using more recycled materials on their cars from the start. The milk jug you recycle at the curb could end up in a car’s trim components. The old carpet and clothing you recycle could end up being used to make sound deadening materials that keep your car quiet. Plastics from recycled bottles end up in everything from battery trays to fan shrouds to air conditioner housings.

The end life of a vehicle may have you imagining a lot full of rusted cars, but that’s yesterday’s news. Today, end life vehicles are recycled with most of your car living on in new products. Whether it’s your tires, your engine, or the doors, today’s end life vehicles provide a recycling opportunity that benefits us all.

SEE ALSO:   Scrap My Junk Car: Where Does It Go?