Every year in Canada, some 1.2 million vehicles reach the end of their useful lives.
Some have been crashed or damaged beyond repair, while others are simply old and worn out, or not worth repairing anymore. In the past, these cars and trucks were mostly just considered scrap. Today, they’re a valuable commodity that’s ripe for recycling.
So what's possible?
There is value in their metal, of course, but recyclers will also be going after their fluids, batteries, tires and parts, whether for reuse or refurbishment, or to ensure that their disposal is as environmentally friendly as possible.
“On an average vehicle, you’ll get 75 per cent recycled as metal,” says Steve Fletcher, managing director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada. “Once you factor in the parts we’ve taken out, up to 83 per cent of the vehicle can be recycled.”
Once a vehicle comes into the recycler’s facility, the first thing is to determine if any parts can be directly reused. These include engines and transmissions, as well as smaller parts such as alternators, mirrors, and headlight and taillight assemblies, and even body panels if they’re still in good shape. Once they’re off, it’s time to “depollute” the vehicle, as Fletcher says.
That means removing all the fluids, which can total between 20 and 40 litres. Gasoline generally stays at the yard, where it fuels the vehicles needed to run the recycler’s operation.
Any gas that’s too stale for use is mixed in with the used oil collected from cars, which is sold to recyclers for six to eight cents a litre. Any of this oil that can’t be reprocessed into a new product is burned in furnaces for asphalt manufacture and other industries.
Antifreeze and windshield washer fluid is also reused whenever possible, and any that can’t is sent for waste treatment and disposal, along with waste transmission and brake fluid.
The battery is worth four to five dollars as a core for refurbishment. Hazardous materials must be removed for proper disposal, including lead wheel weights, and on some vehicles, a mercury switch.
These switches used the dangerous metallic element to determine the hood’s position, turning on the under-hood light when activated. They were phased out by 2003, but many older cars still contain them, and they must be sent for decommission.
Freon in the air conditioning system also presents a problem, as it needs to be recovered using special equipment that prevents any from escaping into the air when the a/c is being drained. “It’s reused on-site, or it’s sold to someone who’s licensed to handle it for reuse,” Fletcher says. “Otherwise, we have to pay $500 a cylinder for it to be chemically treated (for safe disposal).”
End of life in your neighbourhood
All provinces have tire stewardship programs in force, and like end-of-life cars, worn tires have become a valuable commodity, recycled into a wide variety of new products such as roofing, flooring, playground surfaces, livestock mats and car parts.
Most jurisdictions are actively diverting them from use as tire-derived fuel, where they’re burned to power cement factories, a more common use in the past. Auto recyclers also remove and sell valuable metals in the car, such as copper from the radiator, or aluminum from the wheels or engine.
What’s left is known as the “hulk”—the body, and if they weren’t good enough to be reused, the seats, dash and windows. The hulk is flattened in a giant press, mainly to make it easier to ship to its final destination.
That’s the shredder, which pulverizes it into pieces about the size of your fist. The metal is separated using magnets or compressed air. “What’s remaining is called shredder residue,” Fletcher says. “It’s comingled plastic foam, carpet and glass, things that are fairly inert.”
This goes to a landfill, where it may perform one final function: spread over garbage, it helps to reduce odours and pest infestation.
Worst case scenario?
Of course, all of that is ideally what will happen to your old vehicle. In reality, there’s “no real licensing system virtually anywhere in Canada, and nobody knows who’s processing vehicles,” Fletcher says. “Poor recyclers will just flatten (the car), letting the fluid and Freon contaminate the shredder residue (and) polluting the air and water.”
So why go to all the trouble?
The bottom line is that it’s worth it. “Just looking at the metal, you should probably see $500 to $600 for a flattened hulk,” Fletcher says, adding that getting the vehicle to that point takes about $100 in time, effort and reasonable overhead.
“If you recycle a ton of electronics, you might get $200, but it’s $800 to do it. They all have negative value when you throw in proper handling, but a car has positive value.
"It’s an asset, and recyclers are good at figuring out how to extract value all along the chain.”