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Canadian study shows where old cars go in the afterlife

Neil Young once speculated on the fate of his beloved old 1948 Buick Roadmaster in the hippie-era auto elegy Long May You Run, suggesting hopefully: “Maybe the Beach Boys have got you now.”

Turns out that may be true. But rather than “gettin’ to the surf on time,” a University of Windsor engineering professor says it’s more likely the old hearse is keeping Brian Wilson’s beer cold as part of his fridge.

Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu, a post-doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering, has spent eight years studying what happens to “end-of-life” vehicles when they are taken off the road and has determined most are stripped, shredded, sorted and resold as parts of other consumer products from appliances to lawn mowers.

“It mostly ends up in other products,” she said. “Wherever steel is used in manufacturing some portion of that comes from end-of-life vehicles. Could be in appliances, construction material, could even end up in another car.”

That, she said, is certainly the case when vehicles are harvested by scrap yards and auto recyclers and all the still useful components, like starters or steering columns, are stripped out, salvaged, refurbished and sold as replacement parts for other vehicles.

But Sawyer-Beaulieu’s research is simply not to satisfy the curiosity of anyone who wondered, “whatever happened to old Betsy?” It has a more practical application too.

With funding provided in part from the Auto21 network and the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association, Sawyer-Beaulieu has been compiling a meticulous assessment of what goes into an auto-dismantling facility, what gets recycled and reused and what gets shredded and ends up in a landfill.

Large automotive dismantlers can process as many as 17,000 vehicles a year. Every year 13 million vehicles reach their “end of life.”

She has discovered that 80 per cent of the vehicle is recycled and reused in some way but 20 per cent still ends up in landfill. As much as 12 per cent of reusable parts are recovered even before the remaining hulks are shipped off to the shredder for metals recovery.

The goal, she said, is to find ways to recover even more of the leftovers and to cut back as much as possible on that 20 per cent still going to the landfill. Aside from the obvious environmental concerns, she said that eliminating waste also saves the industry money from tipping fees and guards them from that day when governments ban the dumping of automotive materials at landfills, as in Europe.

It is also her hope that auto jobs could be created if there is increased emphasis on recovering, reusing and recycling parts and materials. The research could be used to demonstrate there is a market for more of the materials used in automotive manufacturing and that salvaging and recycling it makes good business sense.

So what kinds of materials can be found in an end-of-life car? Steel, other ferrous and non-ferrous metals, foam, plastics, glass, residual oils and fluids, fabrics, rubber. Once those components have been separated, the remaining hulk is send to a shredder and chopped into fist-sized pieces.

“In Europe it’s legislated how much must be recovered,” said Sawyer-Beaulieu. “In Canada it’s still a market-driven system. The industry doesn’t want to be legislated because it could affect the way they do business. My research is to see how they can recover more to prevent that from being sent to landfills.”

She gave the example of automotive seating assemblies. Currently, once anything usable has been stripped out, the seats are simply sent along to the shredder. She said “it would be nice” to see what further use can be made of the seats.

As vehicles become more computerized, she said, ways should be found to fully recover the electronics and circuit boards.

And what of those parts that can be salvaged whole? Sawyer Beaulieu’s research shows they end up on the market as reconditioned auto parts, offered as replacements to consumers looking for inexpensive repairs.

Often the insurance industry suggests the use of these refurbished parts to clients for use in cars damaged in collisions as a way to save on repair bills. She said that newer cars, even those involved in major collisions, are valued more in the industry than even well preserved cars 15 years or older because their components are out of date.

The exception, she said, is with older vehicles that are considered classics or collectibles. Those parts are always in demand among enthusiasts hoping to stockpile replacement parts for reclamation projects.

So, perhaps there may be someone out there, maybe even a surfer girl, still saving a steering column, tail light assembly or engine part from Neil Young’s old Buick, even though 90 per cent of it has been shredded. Long may you run.

By Don Lajoie, Postmedia News October 17, 2011 The Vancouver Sun