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The Truth About Auto Recycling: Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginnings End

As much as enthusiasts fawn over, dote on, and rub diapers across their rides, it’s hard for them to comprehend that, at every other layer of the automotive strata, cars are just commodities. Consumer goods. And like other consumer goods, they have a limited life span. No matter how well they’re made, how well they’ve been maintained or how fanatical the owner, some day they will all give up the ghost.

Once a car has done that, it’s no longer someone’s pride and joy. Its days of gratifying a new owner are through. Inviting the neighbors over to see the new toy, going for aimless cruises, and the cleansing sterility of fresh leather have all ebbed their flow. A car is no longer a car after it’s reached the end of its service life. It’s waste. And like most waste, cars are recyclable. Scratch that, they’re among the most recycled products on the planet. In 1990, 75 percent of the weight of a car was recycled. By 2006, that figure had risen to 85 percent.

Some ten million cars will end their days during 2007. Their journey to rebirth begins at a dismantling facility-don’t call it a mere junkyard. The title is stamped as “junk,” turned in to the state and, even though it may not look the part, from that point on the car is condemned to never see the road again. Its VIN can never be re-issued, and the car can never be re-titled. The vehicle is dragged around back, a process that sounds a lot more dastardly than it actually is, and placed on an elevated rack, where a technician will start dismantling it.

Aluminum wheels that look scuzzy have their tires stripped off and are thrown into a standalone dumpster. Even with their thin coatings of paint and brake dust, aluminum wheels are considered a very desirable commodity for recyclers, who pay upwards of 75 cents a pound for them.

Catalytic converters can’t be legally resold because there’s no way to test their effectiveness – a salvaged cat may be worn out, melted, hollowed out, poisoned, or any other horrible thing. So those are torched off and sorted into another bin. They will be sold to recyclers who gut them of their monolithic ceramic or stainless steel cores, which are then ground down in order to reclaim the “washcoat” – the thin coating of rare and expensive platinum-group metals such as rhodium, platinum, and palladium. Different converters have different concentrations of those raw materials: The latest high-density catalysts from ultra-clean Partial-Zero Emissions Vehicles (PZEV) fetch upwards of $150. Bargain-bin “universal” converters bring a tenth that much.

With the car still up in the air, the brake hoses are cut, the fluid allowed to dribble into catch cans. Antifreeze, engine oil, and gear lube are all drained and sent to recyclers, who will distill, purify, and resell them. Refrigerant in the air-conditioning system is evacuated, cleaned, sorted according to type, and often resold to repair shops for fractions of its as-new cost.

After suffering the indignity of having its vital fluids piddled into drain pans, the car is lowered and the battery is removed. Batteries are nothing but a plastic shell and lead plates, and over 97 percent of a battery’s weight – including even the acidic electrolyte sloshing around inside them – can be recycled.

Hoods and trunklids use mercury switches to turn on a light when they’re opened. The switches are named because they actually do contain a drop of liquid mercury, and when they’re tilted far enough is one direction, that blob rolls across two exposed wires, completing a circuit and making a cargo or hood lamp illuminate. Unfortunately, mercury is also a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible brain damage, so those switches can’t be scrapped with the rest of the car. Dismantlers have a master list of every vehicle that contains mercury switches, and those equipped with them need to have the little offenders yanked out. The mercury ampule is then separated from the rest of the switch housing and tossed into a special recycling bin. HID headlights and navigation system screens use mercury, too, and those have to be broken down and recycled as well.

The car thus ravaged, any parts worth saving – an engine, a transmission, an alternator or starter – are pulled out and inventoried. The eviscerated body shell may be moved out into the junkyard proper, where it’s picked clean of glass and interior bits, but that brief reprieve just postpones the inevitable. Every car that’s come this far has a date with the crusher.

When thinking of crushers, we think of small, compacted car cubes, like the work of the French sculptor César or the poor ’64 Continental from Goldfinger. But those don’t come from a car crusher; they come from a baler. A baler has arms that “roll” the car into a brick nearly three feet wide and two feet high. A crusher, by contrast, is a car-sized wine press that squeezes vehicle bodies nearly flat. Regardless of how they’re compacted, every compressed hulk’s final journey is to the shredder.

Automotive shredders are incredibly specialized and thoroughly badass pieces of equipment that, as their name implies, will turn a full-size car into chunks no larger than a clenched fist – in less than twenty seconds. There are two flavors of shredders in use, the first of which uses a toothed steel drum to tear a car body into tiny shards, the other relying on a spinning drum with violently swinging anvils to pummel and shatter anything fed into it. Anything being the pivotal word. Cast-iron engine blocks are broken into fragments. Steel torsion bars are snapped like pretzel sticks. Truck frames are torn into pocket squares. Keeping the drum of a shredder spinning requires an enormous amount of power – the average electric motor used to drive one is rated at 7000 horsepower. To put it a different way, the combined output of thirty Crown Victoria Police Interceptors, straining at full throttle, wouldn’t be the equal of one shredder motor.

Exiting the shredder is a rain of debris, pieces that are small enough to fit in a clutch purse. The trail of detritus is sent through electromagnetic rotating drums, which pull anything ferrous – that is, iron or steel – to the outside, letting the other chunks and fragments fall to another conveyor belt. The ferrous scrap is loaded into rail cars and sent to foundries and steel mills, where it will be melted down and re-formed. A majority of the shredder’s output gets hauled off this way – steel and iron make up 60 percent of the average car’s weight.

On top of that, 15 percent of a former car is nonferrous scrap metal like copper and aluminum. Once the steel and iron has been extracted, those leftover metals go through a process of sorting using electrical conductivity. As the fragments are tugged along by a moving belt, overhead probes measure how readily each piece lets electricity flow through it. The ease with which electricity passes through a piece determines its composition, and the scrap is sorted accordingly. Pieces of the copper wiring harness go one way, aluminum cylinder heads and suspension cradles go another, and before long the only thing remaining of someone’s second-largest investment is what’s known, in the industry, as fluff.

Fluff is the name given to the 25 percent of vehicular dross that’s left over once everything of value has been subtracted from the mix. Just about everything that new-car buyers base their purchasing decision on – heated leather seats, plush carpeting, a premium stereo system, backlit LED gauges, and soft-touch dashboard materials – are reduced to fluff by the shredder. Thrown into the mix are shards of pulverized windows and mirrors, bits of headlights, flakes of rubber hoses, crumbs of door seals, and slices of the occasional spare tire that wasn’t removed before the car was sent to the hereafter.

A majority of fluff is sent to landfills, which use it to blanket their daily trash dumps and fill in voids. As some four million tons of shredder fluff end up being dumped every year, entire industries have developed around sorting and recycling the otherwise-useless stuff. A process developed at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, Illinois, is able to sort out plastic and rubber refuse, which can then be recycled into sound absorption mats and mudflaps. Yet other companies, such as PSA Peugeot Citroen, are designing interiors to be knocked apart by dismantlers when the cars first come into the salvage yard.

It’s been said that with the volume of air in the world, every breath you take includes molecules that were first breathed by da Vinci, or Julius Caesar, or Jesus. Scrap never really dies – it merely changes forms. The cars we’re driving today could very well have started life in the coke ovens of Ford’s River Rouge plant or the smelters of Stadt des KdF-Wagens in pre-war Germany. And while it seems apocryphal to suggest that yesterday’s S-class could be reformed into today’s Hyundai Accent, the converse progression also holds true. Scrap is the great equalizer; it knows no conceit. And so the cycle – from salvage to showroom – perpetuates itself.

By Wes Grueninger,