While environmentally conscious consumers—and automakers—put a lot of emphasis on cars that operate efficiently, just as important is what happens to those cars when they’re done operating. After all, more than 12 million vehicles were scrapped last year alone. If you consider that each vehicle weighs thousands of pounds, you can see how quickly the potential for waste adds up. The good news? The automotive recycling industry is alive and well, and nearly every one of those vehicles will be recycled.
According to a comprehensive study by the Auto Alliance, with input from the Automotive Recyclers Association and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, more than 95 percent of today’s automobiles go through the process.
So at the end of the road, where do all of those auto parts go?
Automotive recycling explained
Starting with Steel
Automotive recycling is big business in the United States. Per the Auto Alliance report, the industry provides jobs for more than 140,000 people and generates more than $32 billion in sales annually. And that is partly thanks to the fact that there are so many recoverable and reusable materials in old cars and trucks—the most significant of which is the more than 18 million tons of steel that are harvested each year from scrapped vehicles, creating a variety of ecological benefits.
It begins with the steel itself being recycled, since that metal can be melted down and reused without a loss of performance. Beyond reducing waste, recycled steel has added environmental benefits, because it has a much lower impact than mining and processing iron ore to make new steel. In fact, using scrap steel instead of iron ore reduces water pollution by 76 percent and air pollution by 86 percent. It’s 75 percent less energy-intensive, too.
Savoring the scraps
Steel is not the only material recycled from old cars and trucks. About 86 percent of a vehicle’s material content can be reused, including plastics, other metals and more. Take automobile tires. Roughly 100 million tires are recycled each year, furnishing rubber for things like playground surfaces, garden mulch and even new tires. Meanwhile, common car batteries are among the most recycled items in the country. The EPA reports that in 2013, recycling rates of batteries were close to 99 percent.
- Visit the our recycling locator to find a battery recycling center near you.
- Looking to recycle your car battery? Check out How To Recycle Car Batteries.
Within the battery itself, most of the lead—more than 99 percent—can be melted and reused in much the same way as steel, the plastics can be recycled, and the sulfuric acid can be neutralized or converted into a material used in laundry detergents and other products.
Reusing Hybrid and EV Batteries
Of course, an increasing issue for today’s green drivers isn’t so much what to do about those old-school lead-acid batteries, it’s how to handle the high-tech battery packs being used by the growing number of hybrid and all-electric vehicles (EVs).
You can expect that automobile recycling efforts will keep pace with that growth, following the same two basic approaches that are currently in place.
- First, even when those battery packs are no longer viable for cars, they can still be used to store energy for other purposes—such as helping to power the Lamar Buffalo Ranch ranger station/learning center in Yellowstone National Park. The facility relies on a solar array and the reused battery packs from 208 Toyota Camry hybrids for all of its sustainable, zero-emissions power.
- Similarly, General Motors is relying on retired Chevy Volt batteries to help power one of its buildings at the company’s Milford (Mich.) Proving Ground, and it also has developed a battery-based power-source prototype for home use.
Recycling Hybrid and EV Batteries
Finally, at the very end of their use, those batteries can be dismantled and recycled into their component parts, on the model of traditional car batteries. The details, however, are quite different.
The larger, more complex physical structures of the battery packs, as well as their nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion makeups, require more elaborate recycling processes. That said, mandatory recycling of these batteries in Europe and Asia has driven automakers to take action not only there, but also in the United States.
The recycling industry is moving towards establishing standards for dealing with EV batteries, which already are being recycled for many of their component parts. Perhaps most notably for the environment, these batteries include rare-earth metals, such as neodymium and dysprosium. Both can be hard to find and expensive to process, so recycling them from older batteries and using them in newer ones is crucial.
Reusing lithium taken from lithium-ion batteries has proven more of a challenge, yet many experts think that’s because so few have yet to be scrapped.
Research from the Commission for Environmental Cooperation estimates that 278,000 lithium-ion batteries will come to the end of their automotive life cycles in 2025, and that number is projected to jump to 676,000 by the year 2030. There is still time for the industry to get up to speed.
Automobile transportation is here to stay. Surveying the landscape ahead, it appears that the automotive recycling industry has its eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel to ensure that the end of the road isn’t really the end.
About the author
As a car expert and writer for CARFAX, Charles Krome enjoys helping educate consumers on car buying and selling, especially as it relates to sustainability trends.
Feature image credit: Philip Lange / Shutterstock