Car Recycling – It’s More Important Than You Might Think

Image by Don O'Brian via Flickr Creative Commons

The recycling logo is a staple in modern day culture. Anyone with a television has seen the ads encouraging people to “do their part,” and the ominous news segments warning about the impending doom of climate change. Most people have a general idea of what it means to recycle. We think about throwing plastic water bottles in the blue bin, instead of the trash. Some people replace plastic straws with reusable ones. The most dedicated among us collect compost piles for gardening.

Surprisingly, the most recycled consumer product in the world is one we may least expect- automobiles. Standing at the 16th largest industry in the United States, the car recycling industry might just be the most important asset to environmental preservation that the majority of people have overlooked for decades.  

How Does it Work?

The average useful lifespan of a vehicle is 10-15 years. Generally, when the vehicle hits this age range, it is considered an end-of-life vehicle, or an ELV. Every year in the United States, over 14 million vehicles fall into this category. Nearly 12 million of these get recycled. First, the ELV is taken to an automotive dismantler. Here, any remaining useable parts are removed and saved for resale or remanufacturing. This allows the dismantling operation to provide affordable parts to shops, brokers, and individuals. Some parts, such as trunk lids, can be directly used for resale. Other parts, such as engines and alternators, are remanufactured. The remanufacturing process consists of taking apart, inspecting, and repairing the subcomponents. The remanufactured piece must then be tested to guarantee that the qualifications for the specified part are met. 

Once the salvageable components are removed from these obsolete vehicles, the remaining parts are sent to a shredder. A shredder is a remarkably large machine, that breaks down auto hulk and any other materials consisting of metal into smaller chunks. Ferrous (containing iron) and nonferrous (not containing iron) metals are then extracted from these bits, and recycled into new products. 

Why Should I Care?

It comes as no surprise that Earth’s average temperature increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the course of the 20th century.  This may seem small, but the consequences are not. We have already experienced several of these effects, such as longer heat waves, endangerment of several species, and shrinking ice caps. The National Climate Assessment Report explains that if action is not taken to mitigate climate change, the results will include- but are not limited to- devastating hurricanes, a rise in sea level, and more frequent wildfires. The combination of heat increase and drought will also have negative effects on our personal health and agriculture. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, the impact on the economy and the environment will be detrimental. 

What the Auto Industry Thinks

I reached out to SellMax, a well-known car scrapper, for comment and Jay, the office manager, provided useful statistics on car recycling. He also stated “Recycling ELVs not only reduces waste and pollution that would usually be caused by dumping them, but also eliminates the need for 85 million barrels of oil that would otherwise be used to make new and replacement car parts.” Jay explained, burning fewer fossil fuels such as oil and coal can slow the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in the natural greenhouse. Additionally, fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources, so it is important to save them for future generations, as they are imperative resources.

Furthermore, in the recycling process, oil is safely extracted from the vehicle, which prevents runoff into water sources. This helps to ensure safety for local habitats, while simultaneously saving even more oil to recycle. Recycling metal uses about a quarter of the energy it would take to make new steel. The car recycling industry in the U.S. and Canada alone provides enough steel for the yearly production of approximately 13 million new automobiles. This saves the steel industry enough energy annually to power over 17 million houses for a year. It is also cheaper and more environmentally sound to recycle steel, as it does not require the mining of new ore. 

What Is In it for Me?

One will seldom meet an individual enamored with the idea of higher taxes. The recycling process of North American auto materials is self-supporting, which essentially means it comes at no cost to taxpayers or car buyers. The value of materials recovered from recycled cars provides enough profit to cover the cost of the process as a whole. The car recycling industry does not only aid in the production of vehicles, but also in the creation of several products such as sandals, asphalt, lighting, roofing, packaging, rubber, and railway lines. 

According to The Balance Small Business, the car recycling industry contributes 25 BILLION dollars to the national GDP annually, and provides jobs for around 100,000 people. Additionally, auto parts supplied by automotive recyclers cost 20-80 percent less than their respective new parts. If you have ever replaced a car part, you are already aware of how quickly these savings could add up. Finally, the automotive recycling industry buys abandoned and disabled vehicles from the road, which effectively reduces accidents.  

Now What?

Next time you decide to buy a car, consider “trading up” instead of trading in. It is actually quite simple to recycle your, and many wrecking yards will even give you cold, hard cash- often more than one would receive from a trade-in. A quick internet search will provide several locations no matter what area you live in. We all want to do our part, and automobile recycling is a great way to contribute to environmental conservation without having to commit to changes in your daily life. Car recycling is also an environmentally responsible way to make some extra cash. 

Author Bio: Carmen Adams is a master’s student at San Diego State University who takes pride in doing her part to keep the world green. Carmen’s mother inspired her to pursue her passion for the environment and she has gone on to do work with the Surfrider foundation among many other organizations.

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