Dear Straight Dope:
Obviously, throughout American history, there have been many millions of cars produced and bought. It's hard for me to believe that all of the old junkers were simply squashed down and thrown into junk yards. There would be millions of tons of metal sitting around. How much of this old car metal gets reused, and how much just rots in junk yards? Is there a particular manner in which this waste is put to use?
SDStaff Dogster replies:
Step into my parlour, said the spider to the fly. Or, more appropriately, step into my auto recycling facility, said the Junkyard Dog to the … err … Jay. As the proud operator of one of New Jersey’s finest auto salvage businesses, allow me to shed some light on this oft-overlooked industry.
As you correctly surmised, every year thousands and thousands of vehicles are taken off the road permanently. Some are damaged from collisions, others need repairs that outweigh the value of the auto, and sometimes a vehicle just gets too old. The handling of these vehicles has created an industry that consistently rates as one of the twenty largest in the United States every year. It”s a big business dominated by small businesses, although recently Ford Motor Company entered the field by buying up a few yards and placing them under one name. Still, the “mom-and-pop” yard is far more common. But what happens to all those cars?
Autos arrive at the salvage yard in a number of ways. They might be bought at insurance or other auctions; they could be impounds or abandoned; they may have been bought directly from the owner or a repair facility. Some are fixed and resold. Most are dismantled. All fluids are drained and recaptured. Freon is recycled and resold. Uses for other fluids vary — fuel can be recycled and reused, oil can be used as heating fuel or removed by waste management companies, and antifreeze can be recycled and resold, to name a few. The auto recycling industry handles enough of this waste yearly to more than equal the amount of hazardous material lost in the Exxon Valdez accident.
The parts that are removed are resold, which makes it easier to keep your vehicle on the road. Recycled parts also help keep down insurance rates. After being financially zapped in a court case that ruled against the use of inferior “aftermarket” parts, insurance companies can give repair facilities only two options when it comes to fixing your car — new or used. As the cost of new parts is often prohibitive, recycled parts have become more attractive. Also, ”totalled” vehicles bought at insurance auctions by auto recyclers help to defray some of the insurance industry’s claims costs.
What about the other stuff, you ask? The hulk of the car, or parts that can’t be resold? Recycle, recycle, recycle. Engines that aren’t being reused have decent scrap value due to their high grade of metal. Transmissions, radiators, condensers and some other parts are made of aluminum, another in-demand material. The chassis and other metals are usually crushed at a scrap facility and shipped off to a steel mill to be melted down and reused. That old Caddy you were driving a few years ago might be a Honda today. Never can tell.
In closing, consider this little tidbit: Currently, more than three-quarters of a scrapped vehicle’s content by weight is being reused. You might find yourself hard-pressed to find another non-simplistic mass-produced commodity with such a high rate of recycling. Go ahead, be impressed. Bet you thought it was all like “Sanford and Son,” didn’t you?
SDStaff Dogster, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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