The Sustainability Spot is excited to share an article written by Carmen Adams; a Master’s student from San Diego State University. She is an active member of the Surfrider Foundation and is dedicated to efforts bettering the environment.

Vehicle Recycling: A Driving Force in Sustainability

By: Carmen Adams

Published: May 20, 2020

The environmentalist mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is ingrained in us at a young age. Intentionally positioned as the third and final option, recycling is the last chance to recuperate some environmental benefit from one’s consumption. Of the many strategies to reduce pollution and combat climate change, recycling is arguably one of the least contested and controversial. It’s also far more convenient than swearing off meat entirely and biking to work every day; given the prevalence of in-store bottle returns, curbside recycling pick-up, and designated bins throughout public spaces.

Typically, we view recycling in our day-to-day routine through ways such as discarding food packaging and junk mail. Yet, the decisions we make when parting ways with larger possessions like appliances, machinery, and cars can have a much greater environmental impact. Like our everyday recyclables, many Americans are not familiar with the auto recycling process, and as university students it is essential to understand the significance of car recycling so that we can lead the movement to make more sustainable decisions as current or future car owners.

Therefore, I’ve laid out a snapshot of America’s current recycling situation, along with several key takeaways about the importance of vehicle recycling using data and information I compiled for a report on car recycling statistics in collaboration with the pros at SellMax, San Diego.

How well do Americans recycle?

There appears to be a considerable discrepancy between Americans’ beliefs and habits when it comes to recycling. More than half of the respondents to a national survey administered in 2014 claimed that they, “recycle 75% or more of their recyclable items” while 8% of respondents assert that they recycle all possible recyclables.

On face value, this sounds somewhat promising. Yet, there is an apparent divide in good intentions and follow through based on a national recycling rate of 34.5% in 2012 according to analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Why don’t Americans recycle more?

The survey also found that respondents were unsure about the recyclability of various items- especially plastics. Unclear guidelines and concerns of recycling the wrong items were key determinants of respondents’ recycling habits. This may help explain why recyclable items comprise such a large portion of municipal solid waste (MSW) in America.

The EPA estimates that Americans produced 258 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2014; 34.6% (or 89 million tons) of which constituted recyclable materials. The composition of this waste is as follows:

  • Yard trimmings and food scraps: 27%
  • Paper and paperboard: 25.9%
  • Plastics: 13%
  • Metals: 9%
  • Rubber, leather, textiles: 6%
  • Wood: 6%
  • Glass: 4%
  • Other waste: 3.5%

It is startling how much of this waste could be recycled or composted; thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions from landfill seepage, waste transportation, and resource extraction.

What is vehicle recycling?

Essentially, vehicle recycling involves:

The dismantling of vehicles for spare parts. At the end of their useful life, vehicles have value as a source of spare parts and this has created a vehicle dismantling industry.

The Automobile Recycling Association reports that 12 million cars are recycled out of 14 million that reach the end of their usable life. On average, each car contains 80 percent salvageable materials that can be recycled or repurposed for other vehicles. Although vehicles and their parts are being recycled at a greater rate than other items in the United States, this gap represents significant waste and environmental harm.

What can and cannot be recycled from your vehicle?

A vehicle’s recyclability varies based on its age and make. In his paper, End of life vehicles recovery: Process description, its impact and direction of research”, Professor Muahamad Zameri b. Mat Saman states:

”The composition of a typical vehicle has changed substantially in recent years. For example, ferrous metal [metal containing iron] content has decreased significantly but more plastic materials are incorporated because they are lighter and more fuel efficient… The average vehicle is assembled from about 10,000 parts of which there are a large number of different materials”

The cost-cutting move to utilize more plastic substrates in car manufacturing has reduced their overall recyclability, but the majority of the vehicle’s parts can be spared from the landfill. This includes potentially hazardous and resource-intensive items to manufacture, such as lead-acid batteries, tires, fenders, and engine parts. Additionally, pollutants, such as fuel, wiper fluid, and engine coolant, totaling millions of gallons annually are collected from recycled vehicles. Whatever can’t be reused is recycled to create a host of products like metal roofing, lighting, asphalt, and turf.

Vehicle recycling is a cost-effective and environmental-friendly solution

Some benefits I’ve discussed include reducing pollution and producing new materials from vehicle parts, but this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the environmental and economic impact that salvaging your car will have. There are additional benefits accrued by conserving existing resources and preventing additional extraction and subsequent emissions.

Let’s break it down by the numbers:

The vehicle recycling industry accounts for $25 billion in GDP and employs more than 140,000 Americans.

Each year, there is enough steel salvaged to manufacture 13 million new cars in the United States and Canada.

The industry saves approximately 85 million barrels of oil to manufacture new vehicle parts.

Recycled metal requires 74% less energy than producing new steel

The annual energy savings in the steel industry is enough to power more than 17 million households.

How to recycle your vehicle

Thousands of junkyards and scrap yards around the United States will pay cash for your car, so be sure to shop around your area. On average, a person will own approximately twelve cars in his or her lifetime, so it’s important to understand sustainable auto recycling habits now in order to ensure successful recycling of materials in the future.

Why use a scrap yard when recycling your car?

Scrap yards are an excellent source for recycling cars because they can properly distribute all usable parts of a vehicle. Many car parts can be used amongst a variety of years, makes, and models of cars. For example, the engine of a Honda Civic can fit all Honda Civic models between the years 2006-2011.

What parts are sought after at the scrap yard?

According to industry experts, the car parts highest in demand are also the parts that are most expensive when bought new from a dealership. Some of these parts include:

  • Engines
  • Transmissions
  • Body Parts of cars such as hoods, fenders, and bumpers
  • Tires
  • Batteries
  • Computer Systems

What parts have a longer lifetime and can be trusted when bought used?

In general, the safest parts to purchase are hoods, fenders, and bumpers because you can visually see and inspect these parts yourself.

However, purchasing mechanical parts like engines and transmissions pose a risk because you are unable to test the parts before purchasing them. One tip to keep in mind when looking around scrap yards is to buy parts from vehicles that have sustained damage. For example, if you’re purchasing a used engine, consider buying it from a car that was involved in a rear collision. If the car was driving when it got wrecked, you’re more likely able to conclude the engine is still in a proper working condition.

Many reputable salvage yards also offer warranties on vehicle parts for a minimal fee. These warranties allow you to return a part and get your money back on it and the cost of installation if the part doesn’t work properly.

Driving is the leading contributor to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As we have transitioned into an era of figuring out ways to reduce our carbon footprint, vehicle recycling can give us a chance to not only offset a chunk of the many miles driven every day, but also give our trusty old cars a meaningful send off.