What Happens to Recycled Cars
Some environmentalists are frustrated with the car industry’s seemingly slow development of fuel-efficient cars and all-electric vehicles. But the greens can at least take comfort in knowing the extent of car recycling.
The United States Council for Automotive Research estimates 95 percent of cars are at least partially recycled. Moreover, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims 99.2 percent of car batteries are recycled. Both figures are higher than the recycling levels for any other product measured by the EPA. By comparison, 54 percent of paper is recycled, and 37 percent of plastic soda bottles avoid the landfill.
How are Cars Recycled?
But you can’t stuff a car in a recycling bin. So how are cars recycled? The process starts at the junk yard, where most cars are taken whether they are abandoned, donated to charities or sold directly to the junk yard.
Junk yards, also known as scrap yards or salvage yards, pull the car apart. They first drain the fluids and dispose of them, according to strict EPA guidelines. Some can be reused. There is a growing market in “re-refining" motor oil.
Then they salvage all the useful parts for resale or reuse in manufacturing. The high amount of valuable, reusable material makes car recycling profitable, unlike some other product recycling, which often relies on public subsidies.
Some salvage yards directly sell remaining parts of the recycled cars. Others leave parts in the cars and charge a flat fee for mechanics, hobbyists and others to pick apart the cars. Either way, the recycled cars are basically stripped down to the shell and crushed.
That’s how you get the “Wall-E"-style cubes of recycled car.
Magnets and complex machines pull the metal away from the cloth seats, rubber filling and leather and plastic parts. Unfortunately, these materials compose up to 25 percent of the “cube," and they are typically tossed in a landfill.
The metal is sold for reuse. The car industry is working to provide for easier recycling of the other parts. General Motors, Volkswagen and Mazda are among the companies working to decrease the percentage of a recycled car that ends up in a landfill. For example, Mazda aims to recycle 90 percent of each car by designing parts to be dismantled more easily and using similar plastics throughout the car to help ease separation for recycling.
Meanwhile, USCAR is working with Argonne and the American Chemistry Council on a more efficient system for dismantling recycled cars and separating the various materials.