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How To Recycle A Car

One of several elephants in the room during the debate on whether or not electric cars should be subsidized or pushed more is the issue of what happens to the old ones that used internal combustion engines (the other elephants include the ones relating to how the electricity will be generated, where the materials for the batteries are going to come from and whether the national grid can handle the extra load). After all, we’ve all seen the junk yards where sad piles of rustbuckets from the early 1980s and written cars sit around going nowhere and doing nothing.  What happens to a car once it’s got to the end of its life and can’t be restored or repaired?

Mind you, it’s amazing what can be restored if people are keen enough. At her wedding, my cousin arrived in an antique car from the 1910s that had spent a decade or so as a chicken coop before being found by an enthusiast and lovingly restored to its full beauty – and it really was lovely!

Anyway, not all dead cars will be used for spare parts, which is the first thing that springs to mind when any car enthusiast thinks about what happens to old cars. Most of us amateur mechanics have headed down to the wrecker’s yard for a spare part or five. However, there are some bits that are no good for spare parts – quite a lot of bits in the case of something that’s been in a smash. The idea of all these car bodies sitting around and taking up space horrifies the environmentalist in me – and I’m the sort who thinks that the waste issue is a lot more serious than carbon emissions.

The good news is that despite those dreary car graveyards, there’s quite a lot on a car that can be recycled. In fact, 85% of the typical car body can be recycled.

The first thing that happens when a car is to be recycled is that the fluids will be drained, and they really do mean all fluids, not just any gas left in the tank and the oil in the engine and transmission. The coolant and what’s in the air conditioning will all be whipped out – and a lot of it can be purified and used in another vehicle. Used car engine oil can be used as fuel for shipping. The gas that activates the airbags will be carefully released – if the airbag hasn’t already gone off in the case of a crash.

Next, the vehicle is stripped of anything that’s still useful. This often includes the battery, the sound system and other electronic bits and bobs, the tyres (if they’re in good condition) and items that wreckers know to be popular and in demand. In fact, the car wreckers do a very good job of salvaging anything that can be salvaged. Even the floor mats are usually good enough to find a new home, as these hardly ever wear out.

Of course, not everything on a dead car can be salvaged and reused as is. But the job of recycling an old car doesn’t stop there. There are more materials that can be harvested from a dead car as part of the recycling process.  Most parts of a car can be recycled in some way.

The most obvious component of a dead car body is made of top quality steel. This is very straightforward to melt down and purify so it’s as good as new. Some stats claim that 30% of the steel produced around the world actually comes from recycled metal.

The real goldmine is the catalytic converter, which is almost literally a goldmine as it contains precious metals that can be salvaged from a non-working catalytic converter, and reused in other catalytic converters (obviously) and in jewellery.

What happens next to the car bodies?

The battery contains quite a lot of lead, which is why they weigh so much and why it’s no fun dropping one on your foot.  Getting the lead out is a fiddly process that should only be attempted by an expert, but it can be removed as the battery is stripped down, and the metal can then be reused, mostly in other batteries. The plastic casing, once the acid has been neutralised, is also recyclable.

Interior trim can also be salvaged. In the case of leather upholstery, this leather can be turned into fashion accessories, with handbags and belts being a common fate. In the case of fabric trim, this can be shredded and recycled into new furnishing fabrics.

Wiring is another source of metals, as wiring usually is made of copper. Wires in good condition can be used as is, or else the plastic coating is stripped off and the copper inside can be melted down and reused.

Dashboard plastics can be polymerised and turned into a new type of plastic that’s got all sorts of uses, including making outdoor furniture, like plastic picnic chairs.

Tyres used to be the big nasty when it came to recycling old car bodies because they’re so tough, but that’s no longer the case. There are all sorts of things that can be done with them. More or less intact tyres can be used by clever people to make garden furniture. Shredded tyres are used as safety cushions in children’s playgrounds for when someone falls off the swings.  In some parts of the world, the flatter bits are used as soles for footwear – they’ve got a really cool tread pattern! Grind the tyres up smaller and they can be used for the surfaces of running tracks or as roading material.

Glass is also very versatile, and can either be ground down to cullet (which is what you call ground up glass). The cullet can then be used for sandblasting ships to clean them or it can be used as road surfacing. Cullet can, of course, be melted down to produce fresh glass, including the safety glass used in vehicles. Windscreens also contain layers of plastic, and this can also be salvaged and recycled.

The big thing to remember is that one should never try to strip down a dead car for recycling unless you really know what you’re doing, as there are a lot of hazardous materials involved. Leave it to the professional wreckers for the most part. Things you can remove yourself safely enough unless you’re a complete idiot are the speaker system and any other electronic gadgets (especially if you put them in as an after-market upgrade), the fuel in the tank (siphon it out) and any of your personal belongings you left in the glovebox.

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