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Auto wreckers scrap the old ways

Peter Gorrie Special to Toronto Star October 2008

Junkyards are dogged by greasy stereotypes, but that’s changing in the age of recycling

Battered cars, far removed from their glittering showroom days, occupy most of the dirt yard behind the gaudily painted fence.

In a front corner, used tires – some on wheels, all with sizes scrawled in yellow marker – fill several racks.

Out back sit piles of crushed cars, eight high, flattened to less than a quarter of their original gleaming height.

A constant trickle of customers enters the office – a trailer with vintage 1960s dark brown panelling – to inquire about tires, mirrors, hoods and mufflers.

The scene and the odour of deeply embedded oil and grease suggest nothing has changed in the car-wrecking business. A junkyard is still a junkyard.

Not always true, says Jordan Waxman, who runs this yard, Hollywood North Auto Parts. In the east end of downtown Toronto, it’s the latest version of a family company that has taken in unwanted vehicles for more than a century. Waxman is among a small group trying to change the industry.

Car recycling is virtually unregulated in most of North America. What happens to your vehicle when it reaches the end of its road, because of age or accident, depends on what kind of operation it goes to.

Almost everyone who takes in cars does the same basic things: Valuable parts are removed, the rest is sold for scrap. But some do the job carefully, in ways that make efficient use of the materials and protect the environment, while others make the biggest, quickest profit, and usually leave a mess.

“We’re trying to get away from the image of the junkyard,” says Michael Carcone, whose business is in Aurora. “We’re a green company. We are recyclers.”

Every year, about 1.2 million cars and light trucks are taken off the road across Canada, half in Ontario. They’re known as end-of-life vehicles, or ELVs.

Car recyclers buy them through insurance company auctions or from dealerships, charities and individuals. The price ranges from $50 to thousands of dollars.

Once a recycler has obtained some cars, this is how they should be handled, according to the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association:

The best vehicles – quite often late-model insurance writeoffs – have their reusable parts carefully removed, cleaned and tested for resale. Computerized records are transforming this side of the business. Recyclers can offer or search for parts online. By carefully keeping track of how well various parts sell, they know which are worth the trouble of removing and cleaning.

Carcone knows, for example, that a 2002 Toyota Camry has 14 parts likely to be bought. They’re removed right away. The rest of the car is stored for a few months in case someone calls for a component – anything from an oil pan to a CD player.

Most lower-quality cars are made available for backyard mechanics to pull off parts for themselves. Those in the worst shape go directly to the crusher. Eventually, that’s the fate of almost every ELV.

First, though, batteries and gas tanks are removed. Good ones are resold. The rest go to companies that recycle or safely dispose of their components. Tires, too, either become second-hand items or are shredded for use as a fuel in incinerators or cement kilns. They’re also made into building materials, road surfacing, mats and other products.

Any remaining gas, oil, antifreeze, windshield cleaner and other fluids – an average of 40 to 50 litres per car – is drained out and cleaned for use. Mercury switches, found only in pre-2004 models, are taken out so the dangerous metal can be recovered.

Crushed cars go to shredders that break them into tiny pieces. Magnets and other devices separate the component metals, which make up about 75 per cent of the vehicle. What’s left behind – an assortment of plastics, cloth, rubber and broken glass – is known as fluff. Some of it can, in theory, be recycled, but for now, those in the industry say the markets are too small and prices too low for that. So most of it goes to landfill.

There’s good and bad news on that front, says Steve Fletcher of the Recyclers Association. On one hand, increasing use of composite and sandwiched materials makes recycling more difficult. On the other hand, carmakers are trying to reduce the number of plastics they use and are developing materials made of hemp, flax and other organic materials.

Japanese manufacturers now collect plastic bumpers for recycling. They’re also trying to figure out what to do with the increasing number of plastic gas tanks: A report from Honda concludes the best option might be to incinerate them, to produce heat and electricity.

Unfortunately, most ELVs are not handled properly, says David Gold of Standard Auto Wreckers in northeast Scarborough. Cars are now too valuable to be dumped in fields or along roadsides.

But unlike Europe and Japan, Ontario – and most of Canada, in fact – has no performance standards or regulations for the industry. There’s just a voluntary code established by the association.

As a result, about 90 per cent of ELVs end up with operators who strip off the most valuable parts, such as copper from radiators and precious metals from catalytic converters, and crush the rest, without draining the fluids or removing batteries and other hazardous parts. So toxic materials spill onto the ground, where they can seep into the sewer system, and many valuable parts and materials are wasted.

How can you tell what will happen to your vehicle?

You can try to make sure it goes to an association-certified recycler. That isn’t always easy, particularly if you leave it with the dealer where you buy your new car.

You can also take it to Car Heaven, a non-profit program managed in Ontario and several other provinces by the Clean Air Foundation. It offers a small tax receipt and ensures your ELV is carefully disposed of.

Unlike many legitimate recyclers, it doesn’t allow engines, mufflers or pollution-control parts to be resold. Next year, it’s to be expanded to a national program with bigger incentives.

Peter Gorrie Special to Toronto Star