Heavy Metal: Reclaiming End-of-Life Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 03, 2010

Some 14 million cars, big and small, go to the recycler each year. (Photo: Flickr/Inkslinger)Recycling is really, really hard to do. Not. Today I saw a pair of water bottles that had been left on the ground at a town rec center not five feet from a recycling container. C'mon, is it really that difficult to use a blue bin?

The problem is much bigger than individual litterers, though. In part because of lobbying by the bottling industry and allies such as Keep America Beautiful, only 11 states have laws requiring redemption fees for cans and bottles (and much bottle legislation actually excludes water bottles, which makes no sense whatsoever).

According to the Container Recycling Institute's running tally, we've already littered, incinerated or landfilled 42 billion beverage cans and bottles in 2010, and it's still early May. Only about 25 percent of PET plastic bottles ever make it to the recycler, a number that's been trending downward since people began buying their water (the rate was 37.3 percent in 1995).

Enough about plastic bottles, you say? After all, this is a story on the "Car Talk" website and you'd rather hear about the styling changes in Mustang hubcaps between 1965 and 1969? That's next week. But I am getting to the cars.

We sent 14 million vehicles to landfills in the U.S. last year, which is four million more than were sold new. "Cash for Clunkers" was a factor but not the whole story. The Earth Policy Institute reports that our auto population has reached the saturation point--we have 246 million licensed cars and only 209 million licensed drivers. No wonder one-car garages are an endangered species.

The car fleet could shrink 10 percent by 2020, and that means empty garage bays and a lot of work for junkyards. Did Tommy shed a tear when his beloved '63 Dart was hauled off to the great roundup in the sky? The good news is that its probably been reincarnated as a new car.

Cars are a recycling success story because we recover approximately 75 to 80 percent of them by weight. What's left over when cars are sliced and diced? Fluff. It's also known as shredder residue. The steel is recovered and goes back to making cars, but the plastic in the dashboard and door panels, and the foam in seats are landfilled--five million tons of it every year in the U.S., according to Argonne National Laboratories. Recycling that fluff would save the equivalent of 24 million barrels of oil annually, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 12 million tons, Argonne says.

I've donned the hard hat and safety goggles and visited Argonne's very cool pilot recycling plant in Chicago which separates fluff into usable waste streams, including seat foam, ferrous metals (the wire bits come from steel-belted radials), aluminum and brass, and both polypropylene and polyethylene plastics. They're filling bucket loads now, but they could be filling huge containers with the stuff if the process gets commercialized.

Argonne's big news, project manager Sam Jody told me that an undisclosed U.S.-based shredder is building a full-sized recycling plant with its technology, and it should be operational in the next several months. That's the first step to standardizing this process around the country--and recovering almost all of today's cars.

Recovered plastic is really useful, and can and does live again as car parts. We're just starting to realize the potential. Remember when Benjamin Braddock, in The Graduate, was given one word of career advice--"plastics"? The guy was right. I recently returned from Montreal, where a company called Lavergne Group is busily working with Hewlett-Packard in another pilot project to dismantle printer cartridges and recover the plastic (which then becomes printer cartridges again). The factory also takes in millions of soda bottles and turns them into, among other things, bumpers for Ford Econolines.

Next stop, crushing and shredding. (Jim Motavalli photo)Lavergne Group also dismantled 50 cars in another pilot project, and that process allowed it to recover almost all the plastic. Dismantling is the way to go, and it's the law in Europe. The European Commission has been mandating it since 2002. Only five percent of a car's content can be landfilled by 2015.

Argonne's Jody worries that dismantling cars one by one is not cost-effective, which is definitely true now. The key to changing that is making manufacturers responsible for taking back their products at their end of life, a concept pioneered in Germany (in 1991) with the so-called "Green Dot" laws on product packaging. Tell a company that it has to collect excess packaging and you better believe they'll stop making so much of it. Buy a tube of American-brand toothpaste in Europe and it will be standing on its cap--no useless cardboard box needed.

Why do we let the Europeans get so far ahead of us on things like this? Over there, car makers sign contracts with dismantlers and cars are taken apart in a process that's far more environmentally friendly than simply crushing them and then trying to separate waste streams. Sweden passed its first end-of-life vehicle scrappage law in 1975, then revised it in 1997--car makers have to take back their clunkers free of charge. The Dutch dismantled 90 percent of their 234,000 junk cars in 2006.

As Americans, we're great at creating waste (with four percent of the world's population, we use 25 percent of its resources), not so good at cleaning it up. The first glimmer of hope over here is in the great state of Maine, which passed the first U.S. "extended producer responsibility" law earlier this year. The state isn't saying anything about cars, at least not yet.

By the way, my daughter and I put those water bottles in the recycling bin. Whew, hard work.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One