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Increased recycling of auto parts focus of engineering researcher

Human beings have little understanding of what happens in their afterlife. The same might be said for their automobiles.~

“It’s the end-of-life which we least understand,” said Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu, a post-doctoral fellow in Edwin Tam’s civil and environmental engineering lab who devoted the past seven years of her life researching what happens to our cars after they’re sent to auto recyclers and scrap yards. “The general public really doesn’t understand what a sophisticated industry it really is.”

With funding from the AUTO21 network, Dr. Sawyer-Beaulieu recently completed her PhD and the focus of her thesis was to conduct a meticulously compiled automotive life-cycle inventory assessment of just what goes into an auto dismantler’s facility, what gets recycled and re-used and what goes through the shredder, and ultimately, to the landfill.

She worked with auto dismantlers in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario, some of whom process as many as 17,000 vehicles a year and discovered that as much as 12 percent of re-usable, re-manufacturable and recyclable vehicle parts and materials are recovered by dismantlers prior to shipping the leftover hulks to the shredder for metals recovery.

“After recovering recyclable shredded metals, the shredder residue that comes out at the end of the process still contains materials that could potentially be recycled if they can be recovered after the vehicle is dismantled,” she said.

It’s her hope that more automotive jobs could be created if there is increased emphasis on trying to recover, re-use, re-manufacture and recycle the parts and materials from cars that go to scrap yards, which could have lasting environmental benefits for future generations. But before that can happen, auto dismantlers will need to be more aware of what could be recovered for recycling and convinced there’s a market for those parts and materials so that salvaging them makes good business sense.

“It’s a very well-structured industry,” she said of the dismantling business. “They’re very good at keeping track of what they have, but not so good measuring how much of the vehicle they actually recover. The more we understand about the dismantling phase, I think we’ll be better able to find ways to make the process more efficient.”

Sawyer-Beaulieu will continue her research with the help of a $70,000 grant from the MITACS’ Elevate program, which provides Ontario PhD graduates the opportunity to gain research experience in areas of industrial and societal importance while working on a collaborative research project with Ontario companies.

“There is an opportunity to develop an industry in Windsor and Detroit, which have always been automotive manufacturing leaders in North America and maybe there could be opportunities to make them a leader in automotive recycling.”