News, Updates and Information

How can we ensure those clunkers are recycled?

There are about 18 million personal vehicles operating in Canada today and each year about 450,000 of them collapse and come off the road. Then what?

Everyone assumes they’re “recycled,” but that’s not exactly true, according to a research project sponsored by Auto21. University of Windsor associate professor Edwin Tam and PhD student Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu are doing research into what actually happens to recycled cars.

Auto21 is a think-tank based in Windsor, Ont., paid for by governments and car manufacturers to improve the global competitiveness of the Canadian automotive industry. This year, the feds are in for $5.8-million a year, and car company sponsorships add up to even more.

The Auto21 Network currently supports more than 265 researchers working at 42 academic institutions, government research facilities and private-sector research labs across Canada.

Vaughan: Describe the research and tell me who’s involved.

Tam: Through the Auto21 group, we have our project leader at the University of Toronto, we have two researchers at the University of British Columbia and ourselves at the University of Windsor; and we each take a different portion of the life-cycle assessment of cars and the environment.

Susan and I are looking at the end-of-life phase.

There’s been a lot of work on the use phase of automobiles, where most of the environmental impact occurs when you’re driving it and burning the fuel. The beginning phase is the manufacturing, and everyone has pretty good data of the impacts in that.

But at the end-of-life phase a lot of people assume because it can be recycled, it gets recycled.

Of course, we’re the blue-box generation.

Tam: You know, people believe because something goes in the blue box, it must get recycled, especially if it’s plastic. But it may go nowhere except into the landfill.

It may be because the market for it is too small or too far away or they don’t have the technology or don’t know what to do with it at that stage.

Okay, let’s talk about recycling cars.

Tam: It happens in stages. The vehicle is actually handled rather well when it gets dismantled at scrapyards. But then it gets shredded, and there hasn’t been a lot of communication about what happens next.

The OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] have a lot of data about how much of their vehicles can be recycled, but that doesn’t mean that in practice it actually gets recycled.

That’s why we’re doing the research to establish the benchmark as to where North America stands. If you don’t know what’s happening, you can’t find solutions.

Well, if I ran a scrapyard, I’d want to know how I can sell as much of the stuff as possible.

Sawyer-Beaulieu: The dismantlers have been quite helpful because they want to know how much material can actually be reused or remanufactured before shredding.

What gets shredded now?

Sawyer-Beaulieu: Whatever the dismantlers don’t recover ends up going through the shredder. That’s known as an ELV hulk (end-of-life vehicle).

There are requirements that the shredding facilities have, in terms of the condition of the hulks that they receive — they have to be free of fluids, they don’t want tires on them. They also want mercury switches removed, but in Canada that’s a voluntary process.

You often see these hulks stacked up on transport trucks.

Sawyer-Beaulieu: They crush them first so things don’t fall off when they’re transported and they stack them.

Whatever the dismantlers aren’t interested in keeping stays in the hulk, except the tires and fluids. For instance, if the dismantler isn’t going to sell the seats as a reusable part, they stay in the hulk. The glass gets flattened too unless it can be resold as windshields.

Everything except used parts that might be sold gets flattened and goes to the shredder.

And how much of that ends up in the dump?

Sawyer-Beaulieu: What the shredders really want is the steel.

In fact, they recover about 95 per cent of all the metals, and that represents about 75 per cent of the weight of the vehicles.

The balance, roughly 25 per cent, is the plastics, the paper, the seats, urethane foam, the textiles, whatever; after the metals are out, that becomes shredder residue and typically shredder residue is landfill.

So 25 per cent of a “recycled” vehicle still goes to the dump?

Sawyer-Beaulieu: Yes. It may be possible to identify missed opportunities.

You might be able to improve the dismantling process in a way that reduces the amount of material that goes to the shredding facility. If you reduce the amount of plastics going to the shredder, you reduce the amount of shredder residue that ends up going to the landfill.

This isn’t good because there’s more plastic than ever in cars today.

Tam: Plastics have a much higher rate of use now because they can be moulded and are lightweight, but they’re not as recyclable.

So steel might be more attractive in the end-of-life phase. In the use phase, maybe it’s not the best because it’s still a little heavier.

In some places like California, they regulated shredder residue to be hazardous so you can’t dispose of it in a regular landfill, you have to do something with it. So now there’s pushback.

In the life-cycle analysis, we don’t want to see pushbacks one way or another because we might solve one problem because we push it down another way.

We don’t want to create unsolvable problems down the road.

MICHAEL VAUGHAN, Globe and Mail,