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End-of-Life Vehicles: Environmental Impact, Regulations & Disposal

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    Most drivers will encounter an end-of-life vehicle at some point in their many years of owning and operating a vehicle. If you buy a car and intend to keep it for as long as it's reasonable to upkeep, you'll inevitably end up with a vehicle that makes more sense to recycle than it does to repair. An end-of-life vehicle has reached the end of its useful life and is no longer a reliable mode of transportation. These cars may be damaged and considered totaled by insurance or they could be unrepairable in a way that makes financial sense. End-of-life vehicles are often older, having spent many years on the road with many thousands of miles on the odometer but newer vehicles can prematurely reach end-of-life through a wreck or other accident.

    The automotive recycling industry is a comprehensive organization of many facilities across the nation and globally. These different facilities work in unison to reach a common goal, to recycle a vehicle. While their business models differ, they all provide a step in the step-by-step process of dismantling, crushing, shredding, and sorting out the recyclable material from an end-of-life vehicle. With a greater focus on the environment and the best sustainability practices currently known, rules and regulations have been put into place in some countries to enhance this process.

    This article will cover some of the most commonly asked questions that pertain to end-of-life vehicles and the recycling process within the auto industry. Understanding the steps of how a vehicle is recycled in an environmentally responsible way is important for any driver who's curious about what happens to a decommissioned car. Vehicles are the number one most recycled item, which has a huge impact on the environment and it's integral for the habit to be passed down from generation to generation, to continue to reduce pollution and eliminate unnecessary waste. All drivers should be familiar with the impact that responsible recycling has on the environment, which inevitably affects everyone.

    What Are End-of-Life Vehicles?

    End-of-life vehicles (ELVs) are classified as waste in many instances, as they are no longer operable. These vehicles may be too expensive to repair, especially when compared to their age. It may be the most cost-effective solution to invest money into a newer vehicle that has more life left. ELVs may have high mileage, sometimes in the 200-300 thousand mile range, which is where many expensive components such as the engine may begin to fail.

    Vehicles can reach the end of their life prematurely, as is the case for accidents that result in a totaled car. These cars may be newer and be in otherwise operable condition before the wreck. They generally require extensive repairs that aren't economical for the average budget when compared with the cost of a new vehicle.

    Within the automotive industry, end-of-life vehicles are a key aspect of the recycling process. With millions of vehicles being taken off the road each year, the industry can recycle a great deal of steel and precious metals to reuse in newer cars. Vehicle decommissioning is the process where the recycler dismantles the vehicle and prepares it to be scrapped for metal, which requires the removal of any hazardous liquids. This is beneficial to the environment and the pocketbook of consumers, as it cuts down on the price of mining new metal and provides thousands of used parts annually, which can be purchased at a steeply discounted rate at many scrap yards across the country.

    The Environmental Impact of End-of-Life Vehicles

    Many people choose to recycle common household items, such as plastic bottles, glass jars, and aluminum cans. Unfortunately, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only around 35% of Americans decide to recycle in their daily lives. Vehicles are the most recycled item in the country, with nearly 12 million vehicles reaching the end of their life and being taken out of service each year in the United States. Compare this to Canada and the United Kingdom, which decommission 500,000 and 2 million vehicles annually and it's clear what a significant number this is.

    According to a study done by the Department of Ecology in Washington, recycled steel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 30 million metric tons. Considering that many communities rely on vehicles to get individuals to work, school, and daily errands — it's beneficial to have a process in place to recycle these vehicles safely once they inevitably become decommissioned.

    Disposing of your end-of-life vehicle in an environmentally conscious way helps to manage pollution and protect the environment from any hazardous materials. Vehicles need to be de-polluted and have any gas, oil, and other chemicals removed and safely disposed of. Automotive recycling helps to conserve natural resources and helps strive towards the goal of pollution prevention and waste reduction.

    Your vehicle is made up of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, which can both be recycled. Ferrous metals include sheet steel, steel, and cast iron. Many vehicles are made from 70% percent ferrous metals — mainly from steel. Another 6% of your vehicle is made from non-ferrous metal, which includes aluminum, copper, and zinc. 75% of a vehicle can be recycled, leaving another 25% to be shredder residue. The recycled material can then be reused on other vehicles and in thousands of products each year.

    Everybody has environmental responsibility, which is the ethical and legal obligation to protect the environment. This can be done by reducing pollution and recycling reusable items, to prevent the need to create more steel, plastic, and other goods that require impactful energy consumption and water pollution during the manufacturing process. Used recycled metal can save up to 74% of energy exertion and around 40% of water consumption. As of right now, over 40% of all new steel comes from recycled metal, which is largely attributed to the popularity of end-of-life vehicle recycling.

    Failing to recycle a vehicle properly can result in damage to the environment, such as from leaked hazardous liquids that weren't safely drained and disposed of. Once in the waterway, these liquids can harm the native wildlife and others who rely on the water. Automotive recycling is a key factor in resource recovery, as it allows old cars to be repurposed and keeps the components out of landfill destinations. This optimizes the value of an end-of-life vehicle and prioritizes material reuse for other purposes.

    The Vehicle Recycling Process

    When a vehicle gets to a recycling facility, whether that be a salvage yard, scrap yard, or other junk car service — the process is relatively similar. Larger businesses can take on more of these tasks simultaneously, as they have the resources to dispose of and sort out larger quantities of metals compared to a smaller local yard.

    The steps required to safely recycle a car with the environment in mind include draining all fluids. Fluid can be found in the engine and the gas tank, as well as the AC unit, the windshield washing fluid compartment, and the heater core. The vehicle should never be tipped over, allowing the fluids to leak out into the environment. Facilities have a spill containment area where they can drain all fluids out safely.

    Once a vehicle has been dismantled at a salvage yard, it can move on to the scrap yard. Here, large metal shredders will be used to cut the metal into more manageable chunks so that it may be sorted with greater ease. The metal is sorted at this point, allowing the percentage that can't be recycled to be separated and disposed of. The recyclable metal, which is over 70% of the vehicle, is then processed and sent to a recycling facility where it can be melted down and formed into a reusable solution for manufacturers.

    The entire process of vehicle recycling is organized from beginning to end, with different types of facilities tackling alternate tasks. Salvage yards don't often shred the vehicles, though they may crush them for easier transport. Instead, this job is left to a scrap yard as they deal mainly in scrap metal and less in buying and selling vehicles and parts. This keeps the vehicle recycling process running smoothly and efficiently.

    A study done in 2010 by the Argonne National Laboratory discussed the push to increase the recycling rate of end-of-life vehicles. Over a decade later, this push has been successful when compared with the high rate of vehicles being entered into the comprehensive recycling process each year. The study also discusses advancements in salvaging shredder residues, such as metal and polymers. This helps to increase the percentage of the vehicle that can be recycled instead of simply being considered waste and a byproduct of the process.

    Regulations and Standards for End-of-Life Vehicle Recycling

    Within the European community, ELVs are estimated to produce between 8-9 million tons of waste each year according to the United States EPA. The European Union End-of-Life Vehicles Directive was formed to help reduce the impact of this waste on the environment by incentivizing manufacturers to use fewer hazardous materials while producing new vehicles, such as mercury, cadmium, and lead. The directive also emphasizes the vehicle recycling process, thus allowing the recycled metals to be reused in future vehicles. The ELV Directive has systems in place to ensure that end-of-life vehicles reach authorized facilities that are permitted to handle dismantling junk cars.

    While there is no such federal law in place within the United States that provides rules and regulations around end-of-life vehicles, there is "product stewardship." This term encourages all groups (manufacturers, retailers, drivers, etc.) to split the responsibility of reducing the negative impacts of the vehicle on the environment. This can equate to manufacturers and producers using fewer harmful substances and hazardous materials in the making of the vehicle and the inevitable owner being responsible for safely recycling the car later in its lifecycle.

    This product stewardship is also shared by salvage yards and junk yards. These locations are tasked with safely dismantling and disposing of the vehicle. Doing so in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment is a major part of the automotive recycling process. If all vehicles were dismantled with no order or no consideration to what type of harmful substances may leak out once the vehicle is placed in the crusher or shredder, the environment would take a significant hit in terms of hazardous oil, gas, and other automotive liquids entering into the waterways nearest the salvage yard.

    The automotive industry has a Vehicle Recycling Partnership, which Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors have collaborated on. This program encourages sustainable practices in North America and beyond. The partnership has published studies that delve into how vehicle manufacturing can be made to be more sustainable and the importance of reusing and recycling as much of the vehicle as possible at the end of its useful life.

    Options for Disposing of End-of-Life Vehicles

    When looking at the various options for disposing of an end-of-life vehicle, salvage yards and junk car services are frequently the front runners. Both of these choices deal with buying and selling junk cars and their parts. The recycling process is made from a succession of steps and stops along the way for the ELV. Selling a junk car to an online buying service or a local option is simply the beginning. Owners can often get a few hundred dollars for their junk car, even if it doesn't run any longer. There is often value found under the hood that can be dismantled and repurposed in another vehicle.

    Salvage yards or junk yards can be found within a few-mile radius of many individuals' homes. This can be a person-centered option, as there is generally somebody available to speak face-to-face about the transaction if this is the seller's preference. Other services may rely on communication with support over the phone or via email, which can be a downside for some.

    To choose a responsible and reputable service, sellers should inquire about the best practices of their business. Asking how they safely drain the fuel tank and other fluids before scrapping the car can indicate that the buyer knows what they're doing. A convoluted answer to this basic question may indicate a disorganized and unprofessional process. Inquiries concerning local laws and regulations can provide peace of mind that the recycler understands the legality requirements of disposing of an ELV.

    Instead of leaving an inoperable vehicle in the driveway, which becomes an eyesore for the homeowner and the surrounding community, junk car buyers will buy the end-of-life vehicle. This can take the burden off of the owner and oftentimes, provide a bit of extra pocket cash from the sale. Buyers will be responsible for safely disposing of any hazardous material and boosting the sustainability of the industry as a whole.

    Selling to a Cash for Junk Cars Service

    In this modern age, there are many junk car-buying services. One such example is Junk Car Medics. These online services operate nationwide and they are often quicker and more convenient than dealing with a local junkyard. Junk Car Medics has a streamlined system for collecting information on junk cars and providing a fair quote. Available 24/7 to sellers, this type of instantly gratifying process is accessible to those who want to recycle a junk car quickly and without hassle.

    Similar to local yards, junk car services will bake the price of towing into the final offer. Once a price has been accepted, the towing service will be scheduled to remove the vehicle from its location and provide the owner with a check or cash. The vehicle can then be removed to its next stop, usually some type of salvage facility that will remove and resell any components for profit. This vehicle parts reuse process enables functional parts to be reused in other cars, thus increasing their lifespan and usability.

    Cash for junk car services are a popular option to choose when recycling an end-of-life vehicle. With many options available, it's important to choose a responsible option that takes care to recycle your vehicle in an environmentally conscious way. Junk Car Medics pays cash for junk cars and works with a nationwide circle of junk car buyers to find you the best price for your junk car and to recycle your vehicle responsibly.

    Recycling Through a Salvage Yard

    Salvage yards are a popular option for junking a car. Many cities and towns have a local yard, sometimes multiple options depending on the location, population, and nearby industries. Salvage yards deal in buying and selling used and damaged cars, as well as their various parts. It's not uncommon for a salvage yard to have an inventory list published on its website that allows buyers to search out particular parts based on make, model, and year. This provides a budget-friendly option for vehicle repairs and allows operable components to regain new life in another vehicle instead of being thrown in the landfill.

    Many salvage yards require upfront information about a junk car before providing a quote. This will include the make, model, year, and overall condition of the car. Some salvage yards won't buy vehicles that are missing valuable parts such as a transmission, engine, catalytic converter, and so on. These parts are what make yards reliable money, along with other functional parts such as headlights, GPS systems, audio components, and bumpers.

    After receiving and accepting an offer from a salvage yard, the seller will often need to provide proof of ownership via a title. If one is not available, some states allow the sale of a junk car to a yard without one. Other states may require additional documentation and signatures to legally transfer ownership of the vehicle.

    Salvage yards are often the starting point for a recycled vehicle. While scrap yards buy junk cars, they don't offer the best price. Salvage yards are focused on profiting from parts that can be removed and resold. Once the vehicle has been dismantled, the frame and remaining metal can be scrapped and sorted at a recycling facility.


    Vehicle recycling is an important function within the automotive industry, as it provides millions of vehicles the chance to be repurposed. The materials that make a vehicle aren't cheap and it costs a great deal in monetary value, energy consumption, and pollution to mine for new metal. This strain on the environment can be reduced when vehicles are recycled at the end of their life, allowing much of the vehicle to be recycled and reused in some way.

    Automotive recycling has various benefits for the environment, including diverting unnecessary waste from piling up in landfills. The recycling process enables a decreased carbon footprint when building new cars, allowing the industry to be more sustainable.

    When seeking a reputable and responsible vehicle recycler, it's important to do research upfront. This can include past reviews and inquiring about their practices and how they prepare the vehicle to be safely decommissioned. Hazardous liquids should be drained and responsibly disposed of, which keeps them out of the water and away from native wildlife and vegetation. Metals should also be sorted by their reusability, often focusing on ferrous and non-ferrous material.

    Once a vehicle fails to provide reliable transportation and the cost of repairs and maintenance doesn't make financial sense when compared to the vehicle's age, condition, odometer reading, and other factors — it's time to responsibly recycle the automobile. Luckily, there are many junk car buyers and scrap yards that provide free pick-up and instant cash offers.


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