ByDerrick Mains

Aug 4, 2014

If you’re anything like me, you are still driving that first car you got in high school be it a Pinto, a Nova, or a Santa Maria. I am sure you have cherished that car and still use it everyday to take your daughter to tuba practice or to attend your son’s yodeling recital. OK, we both know that is not the case; cars wear out, they get old and less shiny, and like grandma’s muumuus that she wore in the ’70s (then in the ’80s, and the ’90s, and oh yes into the 21st century), designs evolve like fashion and soon enough your AMC Pacer is causing heads to turn … for all the wrong reasons.

So what happens when it’s time for retirement? Many of us replace our cars at regular intervals; so trading them in and passing them on to someone looking for a newer car is the usual protocol. If the car was involved in an accident, maybe it made its way to a junkyard, but regardless of how it happens nearly every car (on average after about 10-15 years) is eventually recycled.

Yet the process of recycling cars is similar to that of water heaters, as I described in my last article. Just because we say, “recycled” doesn’t mean that every ounce of the car gets melted down and extruded into a new xylophone. The reality is objects that have a multitude of integrated pieces and materials, like appliances and vehicles, tend to go through a process of recovery where a percentage of their materials are recycled. While that percentage depends on a number of different factors, one thing is sure: it is NOT 100%.


As I also mentioned in the last article, with water heaters, two-thirds of the heater is never recovered. With cars, that percentage is better — about 75% by weight. But cars are heavy buggers and 11 million of them a year or so end up being recycled or… since the percentage is only 75% … sortacycled.

Watching a car being recycled is a pretty awesome thing. Massive shredders chew up the cars and spit them out like a scene out of Transformers and what comes out the other side is a mix of metals, plastic, foam, rubber, glass, lubricants, coolants and — in the case of nearly all mini-vans — the equivalent of 6 to 8 boxes of Cheerios residue.

Again, like water heaters — everyone wants the scrap metals. The rest is called ASR, short for Automobile Shredder Residual, and is sent to the landfill. With 11 million cars being sortacycled each year and the average car at say 2,000 pounds, that means 500 pounds of each car (5.5 billion pounds total) is being landfilled in the US each year.

There are some solutions coming for the billions of pounds not currently recovered — including a cool (actually hot) process called pyrolysis. In a nutshell, pyrolysis is essentially microwaving waste, recovering additional materials, and extruding from it the oils and gooey tire-derived products. At the end, you are left with a material that has a lower impact than if the mess was just shipped off and spread out in the landfill.

So, knowing that the car in your drive today will someday enter this process and be broken down, is there anything you can do about it?

Certainly trying to recover as many gummy bears and Cheerios from the interior of your vehicle and feeding them to you children and household pets is a good way to reduce waste. But truly maintaining your vehicle to last longer and provide longer service is a great way to extend the cycle and to save you and your family some money.

Performing proper maintenance on your vehicle including REGULAR tire rotation is really important. Tires are a huge problem, and many auto recyclers can’t afford the costs of going through the hassle of separating out parts before they feed the car to their Autobots (Decepticons be damned!) – so they grind up the entire car and sort it out on the flip side.

Tire replacement is expensive, and properly inflated and rotated tires last MUCH, MUCH longer.

Regular checkups are as good for your health as they are for your vehicles. But like our health, we as humans tend to wait until there are funny noises under the hood and fluids leaking before we head into the shop.

Lastly, get over yourself. Driving your vehicle for a year or so (or a dozen) after it’s paid off is not only a good thing for your pocketbook, its great for the planet. These days everyone wants a smart car — but truth be told, many times the smartest car you can drive is the one in your garage. And let’s not forget that vintage stuff is way cool with kids these days and that 1988 Dodge Caravan, like grandma’s muumuus, looks groovy on you.

By Derrick Mains

Derrick Mains is a former VP at Earth911, former President of the ewaste company youchange, co-founder and former CEO of GreenNurture, today he is involved in a number of clean and green tech projects and acts as COO of trutankless (so he knows a thing or two about the topic). Yes, yes, he talks a lot - in person, on the radio and at conferences and by proficiency, chance or coincidence he is known to occasionally drop some knowledge on you.