How are Cars Recycled?


November 15 is America Recycles Day, a great day to talk about how cars are recycled. Recycling is a magic thing and certainly a cause for celebration. Choosing to recycle means less waste for our landfills and reusing what we already have for a more sustainable world. A broken down car, for example, may no longer run, but once it is recycled can still be repurposed to create something new. Here is what happens when you send your car to be recycled:

Old Cars are Recycled for Materials

When a car has made it past its lifetime it is usually stripped for parts and then recycled. Even if an owner chooses to go through the car donation process for a favored charity, the car will often be sent off to go through this exact same process.

Cars are made of important materials that can be processed to make them useful again. The core materials that make up a car, metal, plastic, and glass, can all be recycled and reused in a variety of different ways. But how, exactly, is this done?

As you can see below, Volkswagen uses a recycling method called the Volkswagen-SiCon process. Most of these same steps and methods are used by other recycling centers. So what happens to old cars when they’ve reached the end of their usefulness? Let’s walk through this fascinating process together.

Battery Removal

The first step in recycling a car is removing the battery. Most of the batteries found in cars are almost fully recyclable.

The three main components of a car battery are lead, plastic, and battery acid. The batteries are crushed and then the components are separated, purified, and the raw materials are then shipped back to the manufacturers. Read an in depth article on this subject from our friends at Earth911.

Here you can see a demonstration of plastic bag recycling. The process is similar to that used for battery cases—enough for the viewer to get a general idea of how this works.

Tire Removal

There are 27 million tires stockpiled in landfills across the United States. Recently there have been many improvements in the area of tire recycling and today 76% of all tires are recycled used for things like rubberized sidewalks and playground surfaces.

Drain Fluids

Before crushing the vehicle all fluids, hazardous and otherwise, must be removed. Any competent mechanic will be able to easily remove all of these fluids and dispose of them in a safe environmentally friendly manner.

drain fluids under car

Remove Catalytic Converter 

The catalytic converter is removed for the recycling of metals found inside.

Air bags Ignited/Disarmed

The air bags must be ignited before the vehicle can be safely recycled.

air bags

Removal of Parts to Be Recycled

Many parts can be reused. One of the most important parts of the car recycling process is stripping out the parts that can be reused. Check out this fascinating video where a group of mechanics demonstrate how quickly it is possible to strip all removable parts off of a car.

Crushing the Car

Now the real fun begins. First, what’s left of the car gets crushed. This is a video of the Australian police crushing cars confiscated from drunk drivers or drivers caught speeding.

Shredding the Car

Huge shredders tear the car apart into small pieces. The massive strength of these machines is absolutely awe-inspiring.

Separate the Materials to be Recycled

Using magnets or other cutting edge processes, the metals are separated out from the glass and plastic for separate recycling. Now the raw materials can be melted down for reuse in a myriad of products.

For more information on how cars are recycled, check out this great article from Earth911 or this Infographic on How many cars were recycled last year.

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