Car Recycling in the United States

As of the first quarter of 2019, there were 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.

Now, 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.

Each year, around 12-15 million vehicles reach the end of the line in the US.

Cars are essentially big hunks of metal, which may have you fearing that your precious ride will rot 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 good for the planet.

The causes are many and varied:

  • A bad accident
  • Failure of a significant 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…

Such was the case back in the 1960s when the world did not yet know what ecology and concern for the environment were all about. There also wasn’t much discussion about ways to get some financial benefit out of the eight million junk cars piled up in junkyards around the country. As the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 led to the elimination of the enormous 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 became focused.

Today, automotive recycling is a big business, committed to handling end-of-life cars in an environmentally responsible manner. It does so by salvaging reusable parts, reprocessing its scrap material, and disposing of unusable parts safely and efficiently.

Overview of the Automobile Recycling Industry

The auto recycling industry has become the 16th largest in the US, employing 140,000 people and contributing $32 billion in sales annually. More significantly, the automotive recycling industry can proudly claim that it has made the automobile the single most recycled product in the world, fully processing 95% of all the vehicles that have reached the ends of their lives. We recycle more of our cars than paper aluminum cans or glass. Think about that the next time you see all those recycling bins lined up at the curb on trash day.

The Importance of Vehicle Recycling After You Junk A Car

End-of-life vehicles 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. Car recycling is a very important process after you junk a car.

However, the automotive recycling industry performs a very important service for many reasons apart from safety. 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:

Infographic: Environmental benefits of auto recycling

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.
  • Reducing air and water pollution.
  • Most “mountains” of waste tires disappeared, which were ugly sources of standing water, mosquitos, and disease.
  • Recycling reduces the new raw materials required for auto production, lowering energy demand and costs.
  • Recycling over 14 million tons of steel from junk vehicles each year. The number of vehicles recycled in the US and Canada alone provides enough steel to build 13 million new vehicles.
  • Reducing energy usage by 74% and lowering steel plant emissions, by using recycled metal instead of making it purely from ore.
  • Each time that one ton of steel is recycled, saving 2500 lb. of iron ore, 1400 lb. of coal, and 120 lb. of limestone.
  • Using recycled steel for 25% of a new car’s body.
  • Recycling automotive metals reduces greenhouse gases by 30 million metric tons each year.
  • Recycling fully 90% of all automotive aluminum.
  • Saving 90% of the energy required to mine and process copper 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 yearly.
  • Remove 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.
Infographic: Financial benefits of auto recycling

The economic and financial benefits

  • The automotive recycling industry is the 16th largest in the US, contributing $32 billion in sales yearly 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 local, state, and federal tax revenues.
  • 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, 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 ones, keeps down the prices of the products they use.

The Auto Recycling Process

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

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 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
Get Cash for Junk Cars by Junk Car Medics

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

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.

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


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

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

What happens when a car reaches the end of its useful life, and the recycling process is the next logical step? With so many brilliantly engineered capabilities, this fantastic machine 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 old and new cars. Think of it as the circle of automotive life!

What Parts of the Car CAN NOT be Recycled?

While the vast majority of every automobile can be reused or recycled, one by-product 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 comprises 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.

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 eliminate the last trace amounts of mercury in our cars.

There are ongoing efforts to find uses for ASR and 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?

Combine every recyclable component of a car, metal or otherwise, and you’re looking at over 25 million tons of recycled materials every 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 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 construction and sometimes even goes back into new vehicles. The car you get rid of today could be a part of the new car you buy tomorrow.

It’s not just the metal components of your car that can be recycled. According to Auto Alliance, 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 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 almost everything. 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 of individuals who use junk car parts to create various 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 actual-sized cars!

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

Works of art:

  • Carhenge in Alliance, Missouri
  • “Blooming Hubcap” art
  • Sculptures made from discarded tires in Morocco
  • Needlepoint floral art on junk car body panels
  • Horse and steer sculptures made from junk car parts in Texas

Making cars from parts:

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

Practical use:

  • Furniture made from junk classic cars
  • Various 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 the front half of a Mini
  • Hanging lamp made from aluminum wheel
  • Wall clock made from hubcap
  • The towel rack made from the steering wheel
  • Table lamp made from camshaft
  • Coffee table made from the engine block
  • Bookends made from alloy wheels cut into ¼’s

Automotive Recycling Statistics

Environmentally-Friendly Auto Recycling Statistics

Recycling Programs of Major Car Manufacturers

In addition to eliminating dangerous materials from cars, automakers also use more recycled materials in their cars from the start. The milk jug you recycle at the curb could be in a car’s trim components. The old carpet and clothing you recycle could be 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 significantly 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 various solutions to the issues of using other, not-so-easily recycled materials in the manufacturing process. This has the dual environmental benefits of requiring fewer new materials to be produced (reducing carbon emissions) and creating a market for materials that might otherwise become part of the waste stream and end up in landfills. Here are a few examples:

How to Recycle a Car: List of Popular Articles

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


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Fluid Recovery System – Equipment utilized to recover vehicle fluids.

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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SOURCE: Automotive Recyclers Association