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A new look at used auto parts: It’s easy being green

Each passing model year brings with it new automotive technologies that make it easier for new car buyers to “go green.” That may leave owners of older vehicles out of the loop as far as fuel-saving technology goes, but they still have the option of buying used — or recycled — auto parts as an environmentally-sensitive way to keep that aging vehicle on the road in good running order.

“Automotive recycler” is a relatively new term for the type of business that has historically been known as a scrapyard. These tend to be the main source of used auto parts. But just as the name has changed, so too has the nature of the business itself.

“A lot of people’s perceptions are still of the old scrapyard,” says Don Laniel, general manager at Sonshine Auto Parts in Cumberland. “We don’t like to hear ‘scrapyard’ here. Everything is automated, so whenever you call, I can tell you exactly what we have in stock, or what we can bring in from other recyclers.”

Beyond modernization, the automotive recycling industry as a whole has worked hard in recent years to present itself as an economical way to keep an older car on the road, but also to keep as much material as possible out of landfills.

“The industry has undergone a lot of professionalization,” says Steven Fletcher, executive director of the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association (OARA), and managing director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC), two organizations that represent auto recyclers. “Scrapyards still exist; there are people who do it as a hobby. Sometimes they know what they’re doing, sometimes they don’t.”

Fletcher estimates there are as many as 2,000 businesses across Canada that could be identified as auto recyclers; the ARC represents about 430 of those. He says the trend toward modernization of the common scrapyard is being driven by vehicle design.

“The car itself is more complex — the materials that go into it, the materials that come out of it, how parts are categorized, how you need to keep track of your inventory — and that has been one the driving factors to having a more organized business,” says Fletcher. “ ‘Cloud computing’ is sort of the buzzword of the day, but we’ve been doing cloud computing for probably 10 years, sharing inventories in real time, and really running networks more than other industries.”

Fletcher explained that about 30 per cent of an auto recycler’s inventory typically goes to other auto recyclers, where a customer is looking for a part that a particular business doesn’t have in stock. He calls auto recycling an unusual industry, since “to have inventory, you can’t just call up someone and order 10,000 bumpers; you need to buy the (scrapped) cars to get those parts.” He says part of the difficulty in running a successful recycling business is knowing which cars to buy, and which parts are most likely to sell.

Alvan Aumont, co-owner of Arnprior Ottawa Auto Parts, says experience plays a big part in knowing what parts from which cars will sell, but adds that computerization has made things easier overall. “We have software programs that are designed for our industry that guide us. The computer will show you your overstock and your history (of what parts have sold well in the past). If you walk into the shop on a Monday morning and there’s a fresh wreck sitting there, you need to know what to do with it.”

Aumont says the “green” label the OARA attaches to the use of recycled auto parts is fairly new, but he suggests there’s always been a sentiment in the industry that “end of life” cars should go to an accredited auto recycler to address the environmental concerns posed by improper disposal of toxic fluids and materials in a vehicle.

“That’s something we’ve been working on for a long time, to educate the public on who we are and what we do, and where these cars should actually go,” he says. “We just run it the way it should be done. If you’re in this business, it’s expected.”

There are more reasons to use recycled auto parts than just protecting the environment; it’s also a way to save money on car repairs. Both Aumont and Laniel say they’ve noted an increase in the number of walk-in customers (as opposed to the bigger business of selling parts to repair shops), a trend they believe indicates that more budget-conscious drivers are repairing their own cars.

“Everyone wants to save a dollar,” says Aumont. “The tougher times get, the more our sales go up. We’re fortunate in that when times are tough, people shop around (for less expensive ways to keep their cars running).”

Laniel adds that Sonshine’s sales of used winter tires — and steel wheels to mount them on — are at record levels this year, which suggests that drivers are looking for a less-expensive way to get ready for winter driving.

“I do believe people are working on their own cars a bit more,” says Laniel. “Before, we were very spoiled in Ottawa, being a white-collar town. We’ve always been very busy with wholesale business, registered garages, body shops, et cetera. But now, with all the (federal government) layoffs, you can see a slight trend where we’re seeing a lot more walk-ins.”

By Chris Chase, Ottawa Citizen