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Recycling yards aren’t where cars go to die, they’re where they get reborn, reused, recycled

The sign at North Queen Auto Parts Ltd. means business.


I’m driving what Bob Sembay would call an “end-of-life” vehicle. My Ford Escort was young when Brian Mulroney was prime minister, and it really should be on the other side of that gate, its tires removed, its engine torn out, an empty shell ready for the crusher. But I’m fond of the old beater and I park a good space away from the gate.

I’m there on a grey winter day to visit a venerable Toronto institution, a business that dates back to 1958 when Jerry Sembay and six other investors set up shop on a country road. By 1964, the Sembays had bought out their partners, and now it’s a three-generation family business.

Bob Sembay, who represents the second generation, remembers a nearby apple orchard. These days, a Jaguar dealership is located at the south side of the yard and to the west is an adult establishment called I Don Knows, a bunkerlike bar with a mural depicting scantily clad dancers. The parking lot is full.

It’s also the busiest time of the year for North Queen – lots of accidents on wintry roads, lots of cars written off by insurance companies. Inside the office is Bob Sembay, a quiet, serious man, with an air of someone who knows his business inside out.

I tend to think of these places as junk yards. When I call the place a scrap yard, Sembay corrects me. Try auto recycling yard.

“But recycling yard isn’t totally correct, either,” he says. “As far as recycling is concerned, you have plastic recycling, you have paper recycling, but auto parts recycling is reusage of the same product.”

Need a new mirror? The replacement is probably lying on a shelf somewhere in the yard. Did your sound system conk out? A clone that will fit your dashboard may be in that glass case by the cash register. How about a new front door?

As Sembay begins a tour of the yard I spot a grey 2008 Toyota Corolla by the gate, its front end crumpled like an empty beer can. This mint-condition vehicle collided with a hard object, and now here it is, its doors gone and snow collecting on the seats. The last few seconds behind the wheel of that car must have been nasty. Of the thousand or so cars in this Valhalla, it’s likely that several took their drivers with them. That’s history, however. It’s as if the Corolla had signed one of those organ donation cards. Somebody could use its vitals.

Bob walks me down an avenue of dirt and snow bordered by metal sheds where cars are disassembled in various stages. In one shed, transmissions line the shelves. These complicated mechanisms look like parts of a nose cone. In another shed, a forklift deposits a white Pontiac Transport. An employee cracks open the hood with a thick metal bar – no worry about paint scratches now. Minutes later, he’s going at the innards with a rattling pneumatic tool.

“He’s probably taking a radiator out, or a battery,” Sembay explains. “Also, he’s going to be taking out mercury switches. Mercury switches, of course, are a big pollutant, so we remove them.”

Cars are demonized as enemies of the environment but, in fact, they are among the greenest of consumer products. According to some estimates, they are close to 100 per cent recycled.

At the end of the avenue is a “holding area” where cars sit in rows, covered with snow. This area of the yard carries the whiff of death. That hot set of wheels that cost you $40,000? Someday it will be worth $50 or whatever the price for scrap metal will happen to be on that sad day – if it doesn’t get here as an insurance writeoff first.

Sembay has seen auto parts disassembled in his yard return years later in another car.

“All our parts are numbered, and we’ve brought in a car that’s been written off and we’ve looked inside and said, `Hey, there’s our number’,” he says. “Somebody bought our engine for that car. And now it’s a writeoff, too.”

There is something oddly encouraging in all this. North Queen Auto Parts, and companies like it, keep the automobile ecosystem going with a minimum of waste. I begin to warm to those forklifts holding defunct cars in their prongs. It’s a more dignified sight than cars being towed by trucks, showing to the world what bad vehicles they were for parking in the wrong spot. By contrast, this is a mechanical Pietà, the crushed body cradled in loving arms.