In actual fact, when you recycle your car, it’s the beginning of a careful vehicle recycling process that’s designed minimise the environmental impact of an old vehicle and maximise the potential of the materials that it’s made of.
Here, we’ll take a detailed look at what happens after your car arrives at a vehicle recycling plant – from the initial dismantling to the weird and wonderful ways that its materials will be used long after it’s left the road. We explore what happens at a car scrap yard when your car arrives for further processing and examine what vehicle recycling means.
Why are vehicles recycled?
Before we get into the actual process, it’s useful to understand exactly why vehicles are recycled – rather than just being sent to landfill.
In official terms, scrap cars are referred to as ‘end of life vehicles’ – or ELVs for short. In an average year, ELVs represent around 7-8 million tonnes of waste across Europe – so without proper handling, the environmental impact of this often-dangerous waste could be catastrophic.
To deal with the potential problem, the ELV Directive was created – clear targets the map out exactly how countries should reuse, recycle, and recover the materials that make up a vehicle. It also sets out an expectation for vehicle manufacturers too – encouraging firms to make cars without hazardous substances like lead, mercury, and cadmium.
This push towards recycling creates a ‘circular economy’ – a way of working that moves industry away from single-use plastics and other materials. In the past, a plastic component would have been considered ‘single-use’ – i.e. it’s made, it’s used, and it’s disposed of. Now though, almost all car parts are manufactured, used, then recycled and reused – reducing the environmental impact of just throwing old parts away and making new ones.
What happens when I recycle my car?
If you’re expecting your old or accident damaged car to just get lifted into a compactor and come out as a cube of metal and rubber, you might be surprised to learn that recycling a car is actually a very involved process.
In fact, specialist car and metal recyclers (otherwise known as Authorised Treatment Facilities – or ATFs) aim to recover 95% of the materials that make up a car – so it’s only a very small amount of your car that cannot be reused or recycled.
Let’s take a detailed look at each step of the salvaging process:
Step 1: Vehicle Depollution
When your car arrives at the ATF, any potentially hazardous substances and fluids are removed from the vehicle. These substances include:
- Windscreen wash
- Brake/transmission fluid
By making sure these are removed from the car before any other processes occur, a recycling plant can be confident they can be disposed of in a controlled manner – and won’t accidentally escape when the car’s being dismantled.
A bit of spilt oil or brake fluid might not sound like a big problem – but with millions of cars dismantled in the UK every year, these substances could cause major environmental damage if they’re not handled correctly.
Processing hazardous substances
When fluids and substances are removed from the vehicle, they’re not just stored or sent somewhere else – an ATF will usually begin the work involved with making these substances safe.
For example, there’s a blend of water and chemicals in your car’s coolant system, the battery, and even the screen wash system. To purify these liquids, a process called ‘reverse osmosis’ is used. During the reverse osmosis process, the fluid is passed over a specialist membrane – and this membrane is fine enough to filter out tiny chemical impurities, letting only water through.
As well as reverse osmosis, processes such as evaporation, electrolysis, and crystallisation are also used.
When the fluids are drained from the car and removed, the systems they’ve come from are flushed through – to make sure no impurities or chemicals go unchecked.
Step 2: Dismantling
With the car clear of any harmful fluids or hazardous materials, dismantling can begin.
Generally, recycling plants will start by removing the following items from the vehicle:
A vehicle’s catalytic converter plays an important part in making sure harmful particles are filtered out of exhaust emissions – but to do this, gases are passed over a range of precious metals – including platinum, rhodium, and palladium – each more valuable than gold.
As well as being valuable, catalytic converters are considered hazardous when their ceramic inner is opened – so they need to be removed from the car to be dismantled individually.
Tyres & Tyre Recycling
Tyres can sometimes be reused on other vehicles – but generally, they will need to be removed to be recycled by a specialist.
Again, tyres can be harmful to the environment if they’re not handled appropriately, so it’s important that they’re given special consideration before any intensive recycling methods are used on the remainder of the vehicle.
Glass & Glass Recycling
Although broken glass might seem useless – it can actually be reused again and again. Essentially, grinding the glass down turns it back into sand – and from there, it can either be used again as sand or be heated and formed into glass once again.
The safety glass that’s used in cars is a little trickier to recycle than general household glass – but with the technology becoming more widespread, this is now in many parts of the UK.
When these items are removed, the recycling plant will make a decision about the rest of the vehicle. In some cases, the vehicle will move on to the next stage of recycling largely intact – but in other cases, further parts will be removed.
For instance; the vehicle’s interior may be removed with the fabric recycled separately. Non-ferrous metals, such as copper and electrical components, can also be stripped from the car and recycled by specialist facilities.
Recycling plastic parts & Plastic Recycling
The plastic parts of the vehicle may also be removed at this stage. Today, most vehicles have plastic bumpers and dashboards – and some even have plastic body panels. Since these items are sturdy and have a long life, many are sold to be reused on other vehicles – although new processes also mean the ‘thermoplastic polyolefin’ (TPO) that’s used to make these parts can be recovered and used again in manufacturing.
Generally, the next step in a plastic component’s life will depend on the price of oil. That might sound odd – but the price of oil is one of the largest costs involved with plastic production. As a result; high oil prices drive up the demand for recycled plastic – whereas low oil prices make it more cost-effective to produce new plastic polymers. Plastic parts are recycled – but there are many economic factors that will decide when that happens and what they go on to be used for.
Step 3: Destruction
With some or all parts stripped from the car, the next step is referred to as ‘destruction’ – and although the end result won’t look much like a car, virtually all of the destroyed parts will still be recycled and reused.
This is the part of the process that sees the remaining body and chassis of the car crushed. Generally, a large hydraulic press is used to compress what’s left of the vehicle. With the car now much smaller, it can be taken to another dedicated recycling centre where it will go through a large, high-powered shredder.
After metals are shredded - Metal Shredding
After being shredded, metals are magnetically separated from any remaining recyclable materials – such as plastic. When this separation is complete, the metal will be treated in a chemical solution that removes the thin layer of tin that prevents mild steel from rusting.
The process is referred to as ‘detinning’ – and the thin tin layer is actually dissolved in caustic soda. Don’t worry though; the tin can be recovered from this solution later – so waste products are kept to an absolute minimum.
With the metal components now free of any protective coating, the steel itself can be melted down. To keep the resulting product as versatile as possible, it will usually be rolled into flat sheets – which can then be reused in a huge number of different industries.
Other shredded materials
Since vehicles may or may not be stripped of non-metal parts before destruction, as well as shredded metals, there are plastics and other materials that are produced when the car reaches this final processing stage.
The mixture of plastic, fibres, rubber, glass, and other materials is referred to as Automotive Shredder Residue – or ASR for short. ASR can contain hazardous materials such as lead and zinc – so once again, this needs to be handled according to strict environmental guidelines.
Although the technology is fairly new – there are ways to recycle this combination of waste products, including converting it into synthetic crude oil or using it in industrial chemical processes.