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The Environmental Story of Auto Recycling

Save the planet. Go green. Help the environment; lessen your carbon footprint.

These statements are all around us as the world becomes more environmentally conscious but the question still must be asked. Why is the auto recycling industry so overlooked in this day and age of reducing and reusing? The general public must do its best to remove those old images of junkyards and scrap heaps from its collective mind, and begin to see the modern automobile recycling facility for what it really is, a clean, well run, well organized, technologically advanced business, an essential part of the automotive industry, and most importantly a savior to the environment.

Although the global image of recycling in general seems to be on the upswing, if one looks at the roll of the human race with regards to environmental conservation over time, we are now nearly at our historical worst. Archeological studies of ancient human refuse dumping show that our ancestors threw away very little. In times when natural resources and raw materials were not so easily attainable people conserved and reused as much as they possibly could. Even after the onslaught of the industrial revolution, ragmen collected old clothes and other textiles to sell back to manufacturers to be remade into certain types of wool, meanwhile dustmen collected chimney soot and ash to be reused as base materials in the brick making industry.

Yet with the advent of inexpensive plastics and cheap overseas labor we have in recent times truly become a throwaway society. Think of the cardboard and blister packaging alone required (according to manufacturers) to securely store products and make them appear more appealing as they wait on shelves for the groping hands of hungry consumers. Our landfills are brimming with materials that were never once used for anything but packaging around the barely used products that lay beside them. And it seems that we as a whole are no different with our automobiles or the parts with which we choose to repair them. Most new parts, whether they are original equipment or aftermarket, come in one form of over excessive packaging or another.

We love our cars and the auto manufacturers know this all too well. Their mandate seems to be to put the world’s population into brand new vehicles as often as possible. But what of the older cars and trucks that still abound? Many are still quite useable, some needing only minor repairs to continue on providing transportation for years to come, while others may be past their usefulness as a whole but can look forward to a secondary life at a certified auto recycler, providing valuable parts at huge savings to other wanting vehicles. Yet some programs would see these units go straight to shredders for steel recycling. Now there is no suggestion made in this article that the recycling of steel doesn’t do its part to help keep the planet clean, but the direct shredding of vehicles only sees the recycling of steel and other metals, while all plastics, fabrics, foams and glass, which are often polluted with hazardous waste, end up in landfills. There are far better uses for these wayward cars and trucks before they are melted down and turned into beer cans, refrigerators and yes, more new automobile parts.

Direct recycling can and must be utilized. Remember, there are a plethora of tested and/or inspected fenders, doors, hoods, trunk lids, windows, headlights, tail lights, engines, transmissions, transfer cases, differentials, suspension and steering components, alternators, starters, dashboards, seats, interior and exterior trim, radios, wheels, tires, batteries, etc. out there at your local auto recycling depot right now, in great condition, already manufactured for their intended purposes, and ready to install onto other vehicles so that their lives may be extended. This is recycling in its true sense, the reuse of a product for its original intended purpose without melting it down and/or changing it in any way, shape or form. And let us not forget to continue to drive home the fact that there are thousands of dollars out there in available savings to the general public when they reuse auto parts.

But, as mentioned, this is still quite a disposable world in which we live and the general trend of society still seems to lean toward most products being purchased new these days. Again, humanity needs to collectively look at the auto recycler as the first and best solution for any vehicle repair. Automotive recyclers have most parts to repair most vehicles right now, be it a mechanical breakdown or collision repair. Insist on recycled parts for your next automotive repair!

Another extremely important area in which auto recyclers help to preserve and clean up the environment is the processing of these end-of-life vehicles or ELVs in a safe and Earth-friendly manner. Today nearly all automobile recyclers adhere to at least some form of environmental management plan and their workers are trained professionals who remove and dispose of hazardous fluids and dangerous waste materials properly and in the safest manner possible. Oils, including engine, transmission, differential, steering and brake fluids along with both engine and windshield-washer antifreeze are removed and stored in two-part containment units (the secondary containment being an emergency catch basin should the primary container ever fail or become damaged) until such a time as they can be picked up by qualified transporters to be shipped off for recycling.

Batteries and tires, when too spent or worn to be sold back to the public for direct re-usage, are also removed, handled and stored in a safe manner before being shipped off for further recycling.

Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon or CFC gas that destroys stratospheric ozone as the radiation in the upper atmosphere breaks it down, causing it to release chlorine (just one molecule of chlorine released by CFCs has the power to destroy up to one-million molecules of ozone [Environment Canada]), is safely removed from vehicle air conditioning units using advanced machinery, and properly stored in special containers by certified professionals.

Mercury switches, containing mercury, an extremely toxic metal and a dangerous polluter of lakes and streams, are properly removed and shipped off to qualified professionals. It should be noted that one gram of mercury will pollute an eight hectare, or twenty acre, lake to the point where the fish are inedible for one year, or to paint a different image, each mercury switch contains approximately 85 milligrams of the deadly element, which is enough to contaminate 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools (Environment Canada) and this is only the smallest quantity of the hazardous fluids that each and every ELV contains. So any alternative to qualified automotive recyclers handling these automobiles is basically unthinkable.

So here we have the vicious circle. Many end-of-life-vehicles are still crushed wet (without first being properly drained and processed) by tow companies and other non-qualified entities, and sent directly to shredders and beyond, where vast amounts of energy will be expended to eventually remake these castaway clunkers back into reusable steel. While other ELVs sit at certified recyclers, albeit properly processed and handled, but with next to none of their quality inspected and in many cases tested parts being brought back into usage as a society trained to admire colorful cardboard and shiny blister packaging drives on by to purchase brand new parts at a higher cost, both financially and environmentally. So due to space constraints the hapless recycler is forced to eventually crush and cast off many usable parts; a sad plight for us all to say the least.

In short, for those who want to become more environmentally conscious, make sure all ELVs find their way to a proper auto-recycling depot. And the next time your car, truck, van or SUV needs repair of any kind, be it mechanical, collision or other, insist that the repair facility utilize recycled parts from a certified and associated professional automotive recycler. They’re all around you. Please call or visit one today.

by Clint Wilson, Ideal Auto Wrecking Ltd.
BCAR Director/Past Chair