At age 50, Kay is a little over halfway through her life as a driver. She can remember all of her vehicles — the Pontiac 6000, her family’s car that was passed on to her when she went to college; the Volkswagen Rabbit, and later Fox, that took her through young adulthood; the Honda Civics, two in a row, each of which she put over 100,000 miles on; a Jeep that she tooled around in just for fun; and her current Hyundai Sonata, which is almost due for replacement.
She is ahead of the curve, according to the auto research firm Polk, which estimates that the average American buys 9.4 new cars in her lifetime. Kay acquires a car every 4.7 years, and if she drives until she’s 80, like her mom did, she has about six more cars to go. She hopes one of those will be of the flying variety.
But what has become of the six cars in Kay’s rearview mirror? Wrecked, junked, or traded in, these are beloved items that Kay has lost track of. If she’s thinking of a car at all, it’s the one that comes next.
What exactly goes into a car? According to Toyota, cars contain a lot of different materials, including steel, aluminum, copper, glass, rubber and various fibers. And over 12 million cars are recycled in the U.S. every year, with another 8 million recycled annually in Europe, according to the online publication RecycleNation, which points out that cars are the most-recycled item in the U.S.
It seems that many car owners, like Kay, recycle their cars accidentally. It’s what happens when one car is traded in for another (or hauled off because it has outlasted its useful life).
But intentional recycling of vehicles is a good idea, and almost 86% of a car’s materials can be recycled and reused, RecycleNation notes. (Incidentally, North American vehicles typically contain approximately 20% post-consumer recycled materials by weight.)
The automotive recycling industry refers to castoff vehicles as “end-of-life vehicles,” or ELVs. The Automotive Recyclers of Massachusetts, in a comprehensive guide to vehicle manufacturing, points out that used carpet from a vehicle is turned into air cleaner assemblies and engine fan modules, and new tires are typically made of 10% recycled rubber material, which also goes into brake pedals and floor mats.
Kay loves the freedom of the road — the ability a car provides to take her anywhere she wants to be. She’d also be happy to know that after it outlived its usefulness for travel, each of her cars was able to “ease on down the road” in its next useful incarnation, perhaps as part of some other freedom-loving woman’s vehicle.
The nonprofit Frontier Group reports the dismaying fact that the U.S. produces over 30% of the world’s total waste, though it is made up of only 4% of the world’s population. We toss seven pounds of materials per person, per day, or 2,555 pounds of materials per person each year. And that’s just household waste.
Every 4.7 years, Kay tosses another 4,000 pounds in the form of a vehicle she has outgrown. You probably do, too. The difference is that her discarded vehicle is likely to be reused or recycled, and much of its material will bypass the landfill.
Diverting waste from landfills is always a good idea for the planet. A recent visit to the professionals in the San Diego office of the automotive recycling firm SellMax.com offered some insight from experts on just how eco-friendly recycling an automobile can be.
- They cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to point out that recycling metal uses 74% less energy than making new steel, and one ton of recycled steel saves 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,300 pounds of coal, and 119 pounds of limestone.
- Automotive fluids are diverted from waterways in the recycling process, too — including 100.8 million gallons of gas annually, as well as 24 million gallons of oil, 8 million gallons of coolant, and 45 million gallons of windshield washer fluid, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association.They cited the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to point out that recycling metal uses 74% less energy than making new steel, and one ton of recycled steel saves 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,300 pounds of coal, and 119 pounds of limestone.
- The number of cars recycled each year provides enough steel to build 13 million new ones.
And who doesn’t love a new car?
The Car Recycling Process
As mentioned previously, a vehicle contains lots of different components, from rubber tires to fiber carpets to the various fluids throughout.
Different components require different processes in the recycling process. Here are a few:
- Dismantling: Just because you’re done with your car’s front left fender doesn’t mean that there’s no more use for it. A firm nudge in the grocery store parking lot may leave another driver of your model in need of an unrumpled expanse of metal. ELVs are often organ donors for their counterparts that are still on the road.
- Stripping: Other useful materials, including rubber components, lead from the battery, upholstery fibers and more, may be reclaimed from vehicles for recycling.
- Shredding: Once stripped, vehicles may be shredded, and the ferrous metal that remains is sent to the steel industry for recycling. Efforts are underway to find markets for the remaining materials.
How to Recycle Your Used Car
The process of getting your car recycled is easy enough. A whole industry exists to help with the process, which is as simple as taking a vehicle to a reputable recycling firm (or scheduling a pickup).
ELVs have value, even if that value doesn’t match their worth in driving condition, so a reputable recycler will pay to take the vehicle away. A simple internet search of “automobile recycling” should yield some nearby results for almost any location in the U.S.
These days Kay has her eye on a sweet new Subaru Forester, just right for hauling her yard sale treasures home. Recycling comes naturally to Kay, and when it’s time to move on to her next vehicle, the benefits of that course of action are clear.
This article was written by Carmen Adams