Car Recycling: Ultimate Guide to The Automotive Recycling Industry

What is Car and Vehicle Recycling?

As of the first quarter of 2019, there were a total of 276 million vehicles in operation on the roads of the United States. Approximately 17 million new vehicles are added to the national fleet each year, and the rest get another year older. It is a never-ending cycle.

At some point in time, most of these vehicles will come to the conclusion of their useful lives. Each year, it adds up to around 12 million vehicles reaching the end of the line in the US, along with another 500,000 in Canada.

The causes are many and varied:

  • A bad accident
  • Failure of a major mechanical component or system
  • Fire
  • Floods and other natural disasters
  • Theft and stripping
  • Age
  • Wear and tear
  • Lack of maintenance
  • Reaching the point where they are not worth fixing
  • And so on…

Back in the 1960s, the world did not yet know what ecology and concern for the environment were all about. There also wasn’t much discussion going on about ways to get some financial benefit out of all the junk cars piled up in junkyards around the country. As the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 led to the elimination of the huge roadside junkyards that blighted America’s highways, and the first Earth Day in 1970 brought environmental awareness to the public, the structure of the contemporary automotive recycling industry came into focus.

These days, automotive recycling is big business and it takes great pains to handle end-of-life cars in an environmentally responsible manner and to dispose of them quickly and efficiently.

Overview of the Automobile Recycling Industry

The auto recycling industry has become the 16th largest industry in the US, employing 140,000 people and contributing $32 billion in sales each year. More significantly, the automotive recycling industry can proudly claim that it has made the automobile the single most recycled product in the entire world, processing fully 95% of all the vehicles that have reached the ends of their lives.

The Importance of Vehicle Recycling

The automotive recycling industry performs a very important service. Through its process of dismantling, reusing, and recycling millions of vehicles that no longer function, this industry benefits society as a whole in many different ways:

The environmental benefits

The act of recycling many millions of vehicles each year results in numerous benefits to the environment. These include:

  • Extending the timeline for when finite sources of raw materials will run out.
  • Eliminating the blight of old-school junkyards, full of rusting cars.
  • The disappearance of most “mountains” of waste tires, which were ugly sources of standing water, mosquitos, and disease.
  • Recycling reduces the amount of new raw materials required for auto production, lowering energy demand and costs.
  • Recycling over 14 million tons of steel from junk vehicles each year.
  • Reducing energy usage by 74% and lowering steel plant emissions, by using recycled metal instead of making it purely from ore.
  • Saving 2500 lb. of iron ore, 1400 lb. of coal, and 120 lb. of limestone each time that one ton of steel is recycled.
  • Using recycled steel for 25% of a new car’s body.
  • Reducing greenhouse gases by 30 million metric tons each year by recycling automotive metals.
  • Recycling fully 90% of all automotive aluminum.
  • Saving 90% of the energy required to mine and process copper by using recycled copper instead.
  • Preventing pollution of our groundwater by reclaiming fluids from junk cars. This adds up to 100.8 million gallons of fuel, 24 million gallons of motor oil, 45 million gallons of windshield washer fluid, and 8 million gallons of coolant each year.
  • Removing toxins like mercury (from switches) and sodium azide (from airbags), before they can cause environmental damage.
  • Recycling hundreds of millions of discarded old tires each year into road-building materials, roofing, playground cushioning, and other products.
  • Recycling auto glass into products like porcelain, flooring tiles, countertops, and jewelry.
  • Recycling auto carpeting into new car parts.
  • Recycling lead-acid car batteries into new ones.
  • Saving 85 million barrels of oil per year that would otherwise be used to make new car parts.
  • Reducing the demand for scarce landfill space.
  • Making the automotive industry aware of hazardous materials like chromium, lead, cadmium, and mercury in junk cars, leading to their elimination in new vehicles.

The economic and financial benefits

  • The automotive recycling industry is the 16th largest in the US, and it contributes $32 billion in sales each year to the nation’s economy.
  • More than 140,000 people are employed at 9,000 automotive recycling businesses across the US.
  • Auto recycling jobs are higher-paying, contributing significant tax revenues at the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Catalytic converters contain precious metals including platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which can be re-used to make new catalytic converters. Other uses for these metals are pharmaceuticals, electronics, and jewelry.
  • Usable parts from junk cars can be resold to keep other cars running longer, also eliminating the need to make new parts.
  • Consumers can realize some monetary value from their vehicles, even when they no longer function.
  • Automotive recyclers have become an excellent resource for cost-effective and hard-to-find used vehicle replacement parts.
  • Automotive recycling reduces vehicle insurance rates by purchasing “totaled” vehicles from insurance companies, letting them recover financial losses.
  • The lower cost of recycled metals, compared to new, keeps down the prices of the products they are used in.

The Auto Recycling Process

There are several distinct stages to the automotive recycling process, which are performed in a set order. Each stage makes it possible for the next to be done, with the objective of ending up with the maximum materials and parts value, and the minimum impact to the environment. These stages are:

1. Depollution

Depollution

This is the first step in automotive recycling, and it focuses on removal of all the fluids that are used in the operation of a motor vehicle. These include:

  • Gasoline
  • Oil
  • Coolant
  • Brake fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Air conditioning refrigerant
  • Gear oil
  • Windshield washer fluid

These materials, once removed from the vehicle, can be reused, reprocessed, recycled, or disposed of, in an environmentally responsible way that will not contaminate the water table or the food supply.

All told, the equivalent of 8 Exxon Valdez disasters worth of hazardous fluids is reclaimed from end-of-life vehicles every year.

2. Dismantling
3. Destruction
4. Resource Recovery

What is a Car Made of?

The average car on the road is a sophisticated and complex machine, made of a wide variety of different materials. This is because today’s cars must be many different things, and all at the same time. They must be:

  • Safe
  • Comfortable
  • Attractive
  • Affordable
  • Reliable
  • Pleasant to drive
  • Roomy enough for everyone you need to travel with
  • Spacious enough to hold everyone’s gear
  • Able to sync with your phone
  • Powerful enough to tow (if required)
  • Able to go off-road (if required)
  • And more
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It takes many different types of materials to do all this!

Vehicle manufacturers put various combinations of these things into a car, as it goes down the assembly line:

  • Steel
  • Iron
  • Aluminum
  • Copper
  • Magnesium
  • Titanium
  • Platinum
  • Palladium
  • Rhodium
  • Lead
  • Carbon Fiber
  • Glass
  • Fabric
  • Carpet
  • Foam padding
  • Rubber
  • Plastics
  • Sulphuric acid
  • Oil
  • Gasoline
  • Coolant
  • Brake fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Air conditioning refrigerant
  • Gear oil
  • Windshield washer fluid
  • Paint
  • Electronics
  • Ceramics

Broken down by percentages, here’s what the average car is made of:

What happens when a car reaches the end of its useful life, and the recycling process is the next logical step? This amazing machine, with so many brilliantly engineered capabilities, will be broken back down into the original “elements” it was made of. Many of its parts will be reused or recycled, giving new life to both old cars and new ones. Think of it as the circle of automotive life!

chart

Metal                             74%
Plastics                            8%
Fluids                              6%
Rubber                            5%
Glass                               2%
Textiles                            1%
Miscellaneous                 4%

What Parts of the Car CAN NOT be Recycled?

While the vast majority of every automobile can be reused or recycled, there is one by-product that has not yet made it completely into the recycling stream. That is ASR, or Automotive Shredder Residue. It adds up to 15% to 20% of the car’s content.

ASR is what’s left, after everything else of value in a recycled car has been shredded and removed, using current technology. ASR is made up of small pieces of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, fabric, glass, rubber, plastic, fluids, wood, and dirt. Some hazardous metals and chemicals like lead, cadmium, and PCBs may also be present in ASR. This has caused ASR to be classified as hazardous waste in some places, requiring special handling, and limiting recyclers’ ability to repurpose it. Half of the ASR produced ends up in landfills.

There are ongoing efforts to find uses for ASR, as well as to separate out and recycle its non-threatening components. These efforts include:

  • Using ASR as a fuel supplement in cement and steel production
  • Converting it into synthetic crude oil or natural gas
  • Agricultural uses
  • Removing the small pieces of steel, iron, aluminum, and copper for use in recycling
  • Recovering the plastics for recycling (more on this later)

What Parts of the Car Can Be Recycled?

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-of-life vehicle is recycled rather than tossed aside.

A full-service automotive recycling facility will have no problem taking your entire car, breaking it down responsibly, and reusing or recycling just about all of it. But what if you’d like to do it yourself? Here’s a handy guide to recycling your own car parts, taking one part at a time.

JCM Tip:

If you are going to recycle your own car, find a safe, secure place to store all of its parts while you go through the process.

What are some other uses for recycled junk car parts?

There is a fascinating subculture made up of individuals who use junk car parts to create a wide array of objects. Some of these people create works of art, some repurpose the parts for practical but non-automotive uses, and some even use the car parts to create sculptures of cars in actual size!

Here are some examples of what people across the country and the world have done with junk cars and car parts:

Works of art:

Making cars from parts:

  • Supercars (and superheros) made from car parts in Poland

Practical use:

  • Furniture made from junk classic cars
  • A variety of household items made from repurposed junk car parts like those listed below can be found here and here
  • Headboard made from mechanical parts
  • Coffee table made from tires
  • Outdoor grill made from front half of a Mini
  • Hanging lamp made from aluminum wheel
  • Wall clock made from hubcap
  • Towel rack made from steering wheel
  • Table lamp made from camshaft
  • Coffee table made from engine block
  • Bookends made from alloy wheels cut into ¼’s

Automotive Recycling Statistics

Environmentally-Friendly Auto Recyling Statistics

Car Recycling Facts & Statistics [The Complete List]

The Automotive Recycling Industry

  • Europe, US and Japan are the largest ferrous scrap exporters in the world, holding a market share of over 33%. These countries are also the largest auto recyclers and hold over 70% of total auto recycling in the world. (Source)
  • In fact, automotive recycling is the 16th largest industry in the United States, estimated to be a $25 billion per year industry. (Source)
  • Automotive recycling businesses employ over 140,000 people at more than 9,000 locations around the country. (Source)
  • Automotive recyclers are small businesses, with 86 percent employing ten or fewer people. (Source)
  • The median number of employees is four in the U.S. (Source)
  • Owners are the only employees at one-in-five businesses (19 percent). Based on Axion Research (1997) (Source)
  • Each year the industry collects and reuses or recycles an estimated (Source):
    • 8 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel
    • 24 million gallons of motor oil
    • 8 million gallons of engine coolant
    • 5 million gallons of windshield washer fluid
    • 96% of all lead acid batteries

Recycling Rates of Cars

  • Around the world, 27 million cars reach the end of their useful lives each year—some are the average 11-year old vehicles driven until their last mile while others are current year models involved in crashes. (Source)
  • The automobile is the most recycled consumer product in the world today. (Source) In the US, it comes second only to lead-acid batteries. (Source)
  • In Europe, nearly 8 million cars are recycled annually, while in the US, the number approaches 12 million. (Source)
  • Nationwide, about 26 automobiles are recycled every minute, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. (Source)
  • In the US, approximately 95 percent of vehicles retired from use are processed for recycling each year. (Source) This is more than the recycling rates for paper (72%), steel cans (67%), aluminum cans (50%), and glass (33%), according to 2010 data. (Source)

How much of a vehicle is recycled?

  • Around the world, over 25 million tons of heterogeneous material is recycled from old vehicles. (Source)
  • Approximately 86% of a vehicle’s material content is recycled, reused or used for energy recovery (Source), with metal being the largest target material for recovery. (Source)
  • Typically vehicles in North America are composed of approximately 20% post-consumer recycled material by weight. (Source)

Ferrous Metal/Steel

  • Every year, more than 14 million tons of recycled steel in derived from junk vehicles. (Source)
  • Recycling autos provides enough steel to produce almost 13 million new automobiles, while generating jobs for 46,000 people. (Source)
  • The average recycling rate for steel and iron in cars is close to 100%. (Source)
  • By weight, the typical passenger car consists of about 60 percent steel and iron. The steel used to make the shell of your car, including the doors, hood, trunk and quarter panels, contains a minimum of 25 percent recycled content. (Source) Once all fluids have been drained and reusable parts removed from an automobile, scrap processors shred it and sell the valuable ferrous material to steel mills. (Source)
  • When steel mills use scrap steel instead of iron ore in the manufacturing of new product, energy use is reduced by 75%, raw material usage by 90%, air pollution by 86%, water use by 40%, water pollution by 76%, mining wastes by 97%, and consumer wastes by 105%. (Source)
  • The collection of recycled steel through recycle services annually saves the equivalent energy to power about 18 million households for a year. (Source)
  • The importance of recycling steel is emphasized when you consider recycling a single ton conserves 2500 pounds of iron ore, 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone. (Source)
  • Automotive recyclers provide nearly 40 percent of all recycled steel ( the most recycled metal) in America. (Source)
  • Last year, enough steel from old cars was recycled to produce 48 million steel utility poles, one third of the utility poles in the U.S. (Source)
  • Across North America, automotive recycling provides around 40 percent of ferrous metal for scrap processing industry. (Source)
  • Automotive recycling industry supplies around 37% of all ferrous metal to blast furnaces and smelters across the US. (Source)

Environmental Benefits

  • The recycling of end-of-life vehicles saves an estimated 85 million barrels of oil that would have been used in the manufacturing of new or replacement parts, (Source) leading to significant reductions in air and water pollution. (Source)
  • End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corporation, established by the auto industry, works with over 9,000 recyclers in this effort and has collected approximately 4 million switches to date, keeping 9,000 lbs of mercury out of the environment. (Source)
  • By using recycled metals, CO2 emissions are reduced in the manufacturing process. CO2 is known to contribute to global warming as a GHG by intensifying the amount of heat retained by the atmosphere. Given the approximately 12.6 million vehicles recycled each year by the automotive recycling industry, GHG emissions are reduced by over 30 million metric tons per year. (Source)
  • Recycling four tires reduces CO2 by about 323 pounds, which is equivalent to 18 gallons of gasoline. (Source)

Financial Benefits

  • Automotive recyclers supply retail and wholesale customers with quality auto parts that cost 20 percent to 80 percent less than comparable new auto parts. (Source)

Aluminum

  • Approximately 90% of aluminum of a vehicle is recovered and recycled. Although the aluminum recovered from an old vehicle represents lesser than 10% of the vehicle by weight, it accounts for nearly 50% of the vehicle’s scrap value. (Source)

Motor Oil/Fluids

  • Proper management of used oil is of utmost importance. Used oil from one oil change can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water — a years’ supply for 50 people. (Source)
  • Every year, the amount of hazardous fluids and oils reclaimed safely by auto recyclers is equal to 8 Exxon Valdez disasters! (Source)

Car Batteries

  • Approximately 98-99% of car batteries can be recycled. (Source)

Car Tires

  • Car tire recycling is viable and material can be used to produce sandals and roadways. (Source)
  • One billion tires reach the end of their useful lives every year. (Source)
  • One passenger tire per person is discarded each year in the developed world. (Source)
  • An estimated 4 billion end-of-life tires are currently in landfills and stockpiles worldwide. (Source)
  • The recovery rate of end-of-life tires is now more than 85% for Europe, the US and Japan. (Source)
  • Nearly 9 in 10 of the 246 million scrap tires discarded annually in the US are consumed in an end use market. The reuse rate for tires exceeds the rates for glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic bottles. (Source)
  • U.S. scrap rubber manufacturers recycle roughly 110 million tires annually – or one tire for every three people in the U.S. (Source)

ASR

  • About 20% of a vehicle can’t be recycled and is termed as ‘auto shredder residue (ASR)’, which includes ferrous and non ferrous metal pieces, dirt, glass, fabric, paper, wood, rubber and plastic. Every year, around 5 million tons of ASR is disposed off in landfills. In Europe, 75% of a car is recycled, making the ASR items 25% of the car. According to an estimate, in Europe, recycling facilities will soon be able to recycle 95% of each car, by weight. (Source)
  • An estimated 5 million tons of ASR are diverted to landfills each year; automotive plastics represents about 0.5 percent by weight of a typical landfill. (Source)

Recycling Programs of Major Car Manufacturers

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 greatly increased environmental awareness on the part of the public has driven these companies’ desires to be seen not only as more ecologically aware, but also as contributing to the solution.

Thanks to the automotive recycling industry, materials like steel and aluminum have long been recycled into the metal products that new cars are made of. The new car manufacturers have been working on a variety of solutions to the issues of using other, not-so-easily recycled materials in the manufacturing process. This has the dual environmental benefits of requiring less new materials to be produced (reducing carbon emissions), while also creating a market for materials that might otherwise become part of the waste stream and end up in landfills. Here are a few examples:

Ford

Ford

The Ford Motor Company has made multiple efforts to use recycled materials in its production cars. These include:

  • Making a total of 300 parts from materials that are renewable and sustainable.
  • Using 1.2 billion recycled water bottles each year to make plastic underbody parts for its cars. Each car uses 250 bottles’ worth.
  • Taking Jose Cuervo’s agave (after it has been used to make tequila) and using it for plastic parts production
  • Converting a total of 300 million pounds of used airliner carpeting into car parts
  • Switching to soy-based foam for all of its seats
  • A plan to have its plants worldwide use 100% renewable energy no later than 2035
Toyota
BMW
Subaru

Learn More about Vehicle Recycling: More Articles

Glossary of Automotive Recycling Terms

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

A

Abandoned Vehicle – Vehicle unclaimed by the registered owner of record.

ARA – (Automotive Recyclers Association) A non-profit trade association representing industry professionals dedicated to the responsible and efficient removal and reuse of automotive parts and the environmentally responsible processing of end of life motor vehicles.

Automotive recycling – The efficient, environmentally responsible processing of motor vehicles for reusable components and materials.

Automotive recycling facility – A physical location where automobiles are processed and recycled.

Automotive recycler – A person who is engaged in the act of buying or acquiring motor vehicles for the purpose of dismantling, selling, or otherwise processing components and recyclable materials.

Automotive wrecking/salvage/junk yard – refer to automotive recycling facility.

C

CAR – Certified Automotive Recycler.  A designation awarded by ARA or one of its approved affiliate chapters’ program to professional recyclers who conform with industry established best practices while operating in compliance with local, state, and federal regulations (including environmental and safety).

Collision Parts – Those parts commonly damaged in an automobile accident, including exterior metal or composite material parts such as, but not limited to, doors, fenders and bumpers, otherwise known as crash parts, cosmetic or the skin of the vehicle.

Core – Any automotive part or component suitable for rebuilding, reconditioning, remanufacturing, or utilization for recyclable materials.

D

Dealer, Motor Vehicle - A person or entity that purchases motor vehicles for resale.

Derelict Vehicle – Refer to end of life vehicle.

Dismantle – To take a vehicle apart for the purpose of reclaiming recyclable parts and materials.

E

End of Life Vehicle – Any identifiable motor vehicle, with or without all component parts, and is in such condition that its highest or primary value is either in its sale for reusable components or recyclable materials.

Electronic Components – A component part of a motor vehicle that creates or receives an electrical current flow.

F

Fluid Recovery System – Equipment utilized to recover vehicle fluids.

G

Gold Seal Certification - Awarded to professional members of the Automotive Recyclers Association who have completed the Certified Automotive Recycler's Program. Recyclers must meet certain stated requirements and agree to follow a number of strict professional business practices, rules and regulations.

H

Hard parts – Any mechanical automotive parts or components (i.e. engine, transmission, suspension, etc.).

J

Junkyard – An obsolete term referring to an automotive recycling facility.

Junk Vehicle – refer to end-of-life vehicle.

M

Major Component Part – Any component or assembly which has a VIN, or derivative marking.

Metal recycler – refer to scrap metal processor and recycler.

Motor Vehicle – A vehicle, machine, tractor, trailer or semi-trailer propelled or drawn by mechanical power and used on public streets, roads, or highways, but does not include a vehicle operated only on a rail line.  A motor vehicle shall not include motor vehicles which have been flattened, crushed, baled or logged for purposes of scrap metal only.

N

Non-deployed Air Bag – An airbag that is part of a supplemental safety restraint system that has not been activated.

Nonrepairable motor vehicle - A motor vehicle that is damaged, wrecked, or burned to the extent that the only residual value of the vehicle is as a source of parts or scrap metal; or comes into any state under a title or other ownership document that indicates that the vehicle is nonrepairable, junked, or for parts or dismantling only.

O

OEM Parts – Parts that are components of newly manufactured vehicles.

Operator – A qualified person or a firm licensed by a government entity where required for the purpose of doing business.

P

Parts Car – A vehicle that is purchased and dismantled for the recovery of reusable parts and recyclable materials.

Pre-dismantling – Initial procedures taken to remove and inventory automotive components or parts in anticipation of future sales.

R

Rebuilder – A person or company who rebuilds a vehicle for the purpose of re-registration.

Rebuilt Part – Those that have been salvaged or reconditioned to good-as-new condition.  Included but not limited to alternators, starters, water pumps, clutches, brake calipers, brake shoes, master brake cylinders, and fuel pumps.

Recycled / recyclable parts – Parts removed from a vehicle and made available for resale/reuse.

Recycler - One who processes or otherwise handles scrap metals, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, or rubber for profit, as an agent or principal, with or without physical possession of the material, with the result that a substantial amount of the scrap materials are consistently utilized further to manufacture a product that otherwise could have been produced using virgin materials.

Recycling business - A business that is primarily engaged in: converting ferrous or nonferrous metals or other materials into raw material products having prepared grades and having an existing or potential economic value; using raw material products of that kind in the production of new products; or obtaining or storing ferrous or nonferrous metals or other materials for purposes of selling, dismantling, or wrecking vehicles

Remanufactured part – A used part that has been inspected, rebuilt, or reconditioned to restore functionality and performance.

Repairable Vehicle – A salvage or damaged vehicle that can be economically and safely repaired or restored to its prior condition for reuse or retitling.

Replacement part – A part that replaces a damaged part on a vehicle.  This part can be new, recycled, aftermarket, remanufactured, or OEM.

Reused Parts – Parts removed from a vehicle and used as a replacement part for repair.

S

Salvage motor vehicle – Any motor vehicle which is damaged, dismantled, or in worn out condition and is unfit for safe operation as a motor vehicle.

Salvage pool - A person or entity who engages in the business of selling motor vehicles or salvage motor vehicles at auction.

Salvage Vehicle – Refer to salvage motor vehicle.

Salvage vehicle dealer – Refer to automotive recycler.

Scrap metal processor and recycler – One who, from a fixed location, utilizes machinery and equipment for processing and manufacturing iron, steel or nonferrous metallic scrap into prepared grades and whose principal product is scrap iron, scrap steel, or nonferrous metallic scrap for sale for remelting purposes.

Secondary Metals Recycler – any person or entity who is engaged, from a fixed location or otherwise, in the act of paying compensation for ferrous or nonferrous metals that have served their original economic purpose, whether or not engaged in the business of performing the manufacturing process by which ferrous metals or nonferrous metals are converted into raw material products consisting of prepared grades and having an existing or potential economic value.

T

Total Loss Vehicle – Any vehicle that has been deemed, by its owner or insurer, to be uneconomical to repair.

Totaled Vehicle – refer to Total Loss Vehicle.

V

Vehicle title branding – A permanent designation on a vehicle's title (i.e. salvage, non-repairable, total loss, flood, junk, or other legal designations).

SOURCE: Automotive Recyclers Association