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The Fate of End of Life Vehicles

When cars reach the end of the road either through natural old age or untimely accident, their owners send them off with little thought about their eventual fate. Likewise, most jurisdictions in Canada have given little thought to the tons of waste generated by discarded cars.

That may be about to change. With new interest in extended producer responsibility (EPR), the spotlight is starting to shine on vehicles and their parts and materials. The Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) has approved a Canada-wide EPR action plan that commits to framework legislation for managing a number of automotive waste products, including used oil, filters, batteries, refrigerants, brakes and transmission fluids. BC already has the jump with its recent regulation requiring environmental management plans from facilities handling end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). In its review of the Waste Diversion Act, Ontario has also proposed to make ELVs a designated diversion material within five years.

The waste from discarded vehicles is no small problem — not only because of the volume, but because of the toxins that may contaminate the residue.

In Canada, approximately 1.2 million vehicles are taken off the road every year. Yet there’s currently no national framework for managing them; no agency tracks their numbers and fate. Consequently, it’s difficult to gauge the exact extent of the waste problem. As Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu, Ph.D., from the University of Windsor concludes from her detailed research, ELVs are the least studied phase of the car lifecycle.

So, what does happen to your retired vehicle? When sent to a reputable auto recycler, chances are that it will be managed responsibly. Reusable or recyclable parts will be removed before shredding. Typical parts that can be recovered are AC compressors, water pumps, carburetors, alternators, starters, transmissions, axle assemblies, engines, and transfer cases. Batteries, catalytic converters, radiators and tires are also removed for recycling.

Auto recyclers also play an important role in removing liquids that would otherwise pose a pollution problem. When vehicles go for dismantling, an average of 19 litres of operating fluids — including hazardous ones — is recovered in a proper non-polluting process: engine oil, transmission oil, drive oil, steering fluid, coolant and fuel. Mercury light switches and mercury-containing anti-lock brake systems will also be recovered and properly disposed.

The best guess about the number of vehicles being appropriately managed comes from the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC) that represents hundreds of auto dismantling and recycling facilities across the country. ARC estimates that 600,000 cars and other vehicles come off the roads every year in Ontario — just under half the vehicles in Canada.

According to ARC, of those 600,000 ELVs, approximately 200,000 are handled by their members, who are required to “de-pollute” the vehicles before shredding. The other 400,000 (or roughly 65 per cent) are processed either by other auto wreckers, some of whom sell used parts, or they go directly to salvage yards or scrap metal dealers who send them to shredders for metal recovery.

When the cars go to salvage yards or scrap metal dealers, it’s much harder to know how the vehicle is managed. This is a serious part of the waste problem. Here, the vehicle is not going to be dismantled for parts, and it’s not generally physically or economically feasible for these facilities to remove oils, refrigerants and other polluting substances before a vehicle is shredded.

When the vehicle finally arrives at the shredder, either mined for parts and de-polluted (or not), it’s broken down into much smaller pieces, and the metals are extracted. Ferrous and non-ferrous metals are recovered. (Ferrous metals make up about 70 per cent of a vehicle, while non-ferrous metals are about 6 per cent.) Happily, because of the value of the metal in a car, 75 per cent of each vehicle by weight is recycled. However, the 25 per cent left over — a commingled mess of rubber, plastics, glass, dirt, carpet fibres, and seat foam — is waste destined for the landfill.

Because of the sheer volume of vehicles that go off the road every year, this adds up to tons and tons of waste. The 600,000 vehicles in Ontario retired annually generate at least 500 pounds of auto shredder residue per vehicle. This means 300 million pounds (or 150,000 tonnes) of shredder residue go into Ontario landfills each year. A significant proportion of this waste is shredded parts and materials that could be recovered and reused if a proper recycling framework were in place. Moreover, if the vehicle is not depolluted prior to being shredded, the residue sent to landfill is contaminated.

A legal framework in Canada and in all the provinces to strengthen the management of end-of-life vehicles is long overdue. Such a framework would provide the basis for building a sustainable vehicle recycling industry.

Anne Wordsworth is Research Associate with the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Anne at This article appeared in Solid Waste and Recycling Magazine