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How to Recycle Cars

written by: Steve Graham•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 5/24/2011

A quick guide to car recycling and what happens to the cars — the most recycled product in the U.S. — after going to the recycler.

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    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.

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    How to Recycle Cars

    So eventually your car will need repairs that cost more than the car’s value. When it becomes a stationary rust pile, you could abandon it away from your house or roll it into a lake. But both are illegal and environmentally unsound. Instead, here are some options for car recycling.

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    Donate Your Vehicle

    You’ve probably heard radio ads encouraging drivers to give their old cars to charity. Car resales, auctions and salvage are a source of income for many non-profit organizations. They typically pick up your car and tow it to a car lot. For them to make money, the car is always reused or recycled. They often have volunteer mechanics try to fix the cars for resale or auction. If the car is beyond repair, it’s sold to the junk yard.

    For you, it’s an easy way to get rid of your car and get a tax write-off. Contact your favorite local charity for more information, and keep in mind these tips from Charity Watch.

    • Make sure the charity is a registered tax-exempt organization.

    • Keep a receipt and maintain meticulous tax records in case you get audited. Keep in mind you can only deduct the charity’s sale price of the car, not the Blue Book value or your perceived sentimental value.

    • An extra form is needed if you can claim more than $500 for the write-off.

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    Sell it to the Junk Yard

    You can take your car directly to the junk yard if you know it’s not worth enough to sell as a used car. At best, you will get some cash. At worst, you might get the junk yard processing fee waived.

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    Sell it to a salvage company

    Pick N Pull is one of many local or national companies that will pay you to pick up your car in any condition. They usually strip reusable parts and keep the money. Also, find out how to recycle tires.