How It Works: Vehicle recycling
Even when a vehicle reaches the end of its life, there’s still value in it. While it’s common for people to say it “goes to the scrapyard,” it actually heads to recycling.
Between metal and reusable items, about 83 per cent of a vehicle is recycled, according to Steve Fletcher, executive director of the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association (OARA).
“As the manufacturers have light-weighted their vehicles, there are more plastics, but there’s a lot more aluminum,” he says. “There are a lot more electronics and therefore more rare-earth metals, and catalytic converters are worth more. You can extract $500 to $600 in metal out of a car, but you have to understand the effort to get it out.”
Once a vehicle goes to the recycler, the first step is to determine what to keep. Components that are still in good working condition, or any body parts or panels that are in good shape, are kept and catalogued for future sale.
All fluids are removed, a process known as “depollution.” Most recyclers keep the gasoline for use in their yard vehicles. Used oil is sold to recyclers, who process it into new oil or, if that isn’t possible, sell it to industries such as asphalt manufacturing to burn in their furnaces. Other fluids, such as antifreeze, washer fluid or transmission oil, are reused by the yard or sent for recycling.
Hazardous materials must be properly managed to avoid environmental damage. These include air conditioning refrigerant, lead wheel weights, and on older vehicles, under-hood lights, which were phased out in 2003 because they contain mercury in their switches. Government-funded programs used to be in place for proper switch collection and disposal, for both in cars coming into the yard and any that might have been in inventory for years, since the lights date back to the 1950s. Fletcher says the program has been discontinued, and recyclers will now have to deal with any remaining switches on their own.
Tires are sent for recycling, where they become new products such as playground surfaces or roofing. There isn’t an established recycling path for high-tech material such as carbon fibre in place right now, but recyclers haven’t yet started to get much of it in scrapped vehicles. Once the vehicle is stripped, it’s flattened in a giant press to make it easier to handle, and from there it goes to a shredder. Unless the seats and interior trim can be reused, they’re usually left inside. Metals are separated out using magnets or compressed air. The remainder, mostly plastic, carpet, glass, and seat fabric, is spread on landfills to reduce odour and pests.
“We think that, over time, they’re going to go back in and mine that landfill because the technology to recover non-ferrous metals has gone up dramatically, as well as the metals’ price,” Fletcher says. “Some of the shredders are already putting in flotation technology and optical identification to get smaller pieces of metal out, and finding that it pays.”
Conventional lead-acid batteries are sold as a core for refurbishment, but hybrid and electric vehicle batteries currently present more of an issue.
“You can’t leave it in the vehicle in a shredder, because it creates all sorts of (problems),” Fletcher says. “They can be reused unless they’re damaged, but we’re getting them in quantities that are beginning to surpass reuse levels.
“We’re the middle people dealing with that, and right now there’s a big information and processing gap between what has to happen and what we know about how to do it. There are probably six or seven (hybrid) battery recyclers in North America. GM’s the one company that’s stepped forward and said if you get a battery you can’t use, they handle the logistics of getting it to British Columbia for final recovery. We need more interaction with the manufacturers.”
Recalls can also present issues for recyclers, who need to know if the parts they’re taking off vehicles for reuse are affected by any safety issues.
How It Works: Vehicle recall notices
“There’s some uncertainty in the value of our inventory, because we don’t have the data as to which VINs (vehicle information numbers) are under recall. You can get the information but it’s one VIN at a time, and when there are 5,000 parts in your inventory, it’s tough.”
Most recyclers transfer the vehicle ownerships when they get the cars, and so they receive any new recall notices, “but you have the long path of going into your inventory and deleting the parts, and it’s a big administrative burden for us,” Fletcher says. “If it’s a part (that’s affected), they’ll throw it into the scrap metal pile, or throw it in the vehicle and let the shredding process sort out the metal.”
Even decades ago, cars never went straight to landfill, Fletcher says, because of the value in their materials.
“A car is an asset, and it has to be managed that way,” he says, adding that the biggest issue today is in understanding the new materials and technologies as they show up in vehicles, so that recyclers are able to deal with them at the end of the vehicle’s life.