Home > Environment > A Brief Primer on Ecological Car Disposal
by Gabe Vargas

In today’s era of ever-increasing carbon emissions, many of us are wondering how we can travel more responsibly while still getting where we need to go. In a perfect world – and in many cities today – we would have the luxury of setting aside our cars and moving around by bicycle, public transport, or even our own two feet. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t a realistic option for many of us. So what’s the next best thing? Well, just like milk cartons and paper bags, your car is recyclable!

Wait, Really?

Yes, really! In fact, cars are the most recycled object per year. The auto recycling industry is the 16th largest industry in the United States; it accounts for over 100 million gallons of oil recovered annually and saves the steel industry enough energy to power 17 million households. Over 12 million cars per year are recycled, making it the most recycled item in the U.S. In fact, auto recycling is so successful that the industry is entirely self-sustaining, receiving subsidies neither from the U.S. taxpayer nor the automobile consumer.

What Exactly Is Car Recycling?

            Let’s begin with a simple definition: vehicle recycling is the process of dismantling old automobiles so their spare parts can be reused. This isn’t just for the purpose of constructing new cars. In fact, as newer cars are built with more efficient materials, the recycled components from older models are often made into entirely unrelated products. Approximately 80% of each car is recyclable and the following results are far from an exhaustive list:

  • Metals such as steel and lead become bicycles, lighting fixtures, and roofing materials.
  • Tires are made into footwear, insulation, and even railway lines.
  • Seats can become soundproofing materials for new vehicles.
  • Batteries are turned into any number of new products, including new batteries.

            The process of automobile recycling is surprisingly simple. It begins with the dismantling of a car at one of North America’s 15,000 auto-dismantling facilities. Some parts, such as door panels, trunk hoods, and fluids, are reusable as-is. Others, such as alternators and engines, can often be remanufactured with a combination of new and old components. The remaining hulk is sent to one of 200 shredder facilities where it is torn up into base materials used to create new appliances.

            Materials that remain (that is, which are unrecyclable) are called shredder residue. Nearly all of this residue is disposed of in a landfill, but due to rising costs over time, new alternatives are being explored, such as:

  • The separation and recovery of recyclable plastics and rubber.
  • Chemical conversion to fluid fuel.
  • Incineration.

            Ultimately, automobile recycling is a robust process with a great deal of economic and environmental value. It sustains materials. It employs more than 140,000 people nationwide. It contributes to the manufacturing of new cars and many other products. And again, it is entirely self-sufficient!

Should I Have My Car Recycled?

            Absolutely! If you aren’t already convinced, then let’s take a look at the impact recycling your car will have. To answer this question, I spoke with a representative of SellMax in Bakersfield, California, and learned some encouraging statistics. By leaving your old vehicle with an authorized facility, you will contribute to:

  • The manufacturing of one of 13 million new cars this year alone.
  • The salvation of 85 million barrels of oil (that’s over 3.5 billion gallons!) which would otherwise go to the creation of new parts.
  • A three-quarters reduction in energy consumption preparing steel for new vehicles. As I’ve mentioned above, that energy is enough to power over 17 million households!

            And the process could hardly be easier. After you’ve found a location that will recycle your car, that location will offer you cash-in-hand for the vehicle. Some junkyards will even pick up the vehicle for you. Because the people who work at these yards are so knowledgeable, they will know exactly how the parts of your car can be reused and with which makes, models, and years they will be compatible. Your vehicle will be in good hands!

            Conveniently for you and other consumers, the parts which are in highest demand by recyclers are also the parts that are most expensive to purchase new. These include:

  • Engines
  • Transmission
  • Body Parts
  • Tires
  • Batteries
  • Computer Systems

Is It Really Safe for Me to Purchase Recycled Parts?

            It sure is! I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. Certainly, some parts are more reliable used than others. Parts that you can inspect visually, such as hoods and fenders, will always be a safe bet. If it looks damaged, it is, and if not, you’re good to go!

More complicated parts, such as engines and transmissions, carry a higher risk. These are the parts that you cannot fully test until they’re already running in your vehicle. In cases like these, you want to look for parts that came from cars involved in unrelated physical collisions. That is, make sure the parts you purchase were not involved in decommissioning the vehicle.

            Luckily, most junkyards are safety-conscious and will offer a warranty on parts for a modest fee. If you have any issues with your purchase, you can often have the cost of both the part and the installation refunded.

            And remember, many of the utilities and appliances you use in your daily life have also come from retired vehicles. The materials that compose these products have gone through a rigorous deconstruction, reconstruction, and assembly process. It is the responsibility of auto recyclers to make sure the parts they take in are put to good use.

Then What Am I Waiting For?

I don’t know! But just in case, let’s review reasons why you might want to recycle your beloved car when its time has come:

  • The recycling of an automobile preserves an incredible amount of energy – enough in steel processing to power 17 million households and over 3.5 billion gallons of oil – every year.
  • Out of the 80% of a car which can be recycled, many unrelated appliances are created, from roofing and asphalt to insulation and metalwork.
  • You are contributing to a $25 billion per year industry employing over 140,000 workers.
  • Cash-in-hand!

Now go forth with this newfound knowledge and find a dropoff location near you! Your old car will find a second life and the planet will thank you.