We’ve all heard over and over again
about that government program ‘Cash
for Clunkers.’ It’s got drivers
thinking about what exactly happens
to dead cars, regardless of how they
die. Shawn Allee looks at
how car recycling works and who’s
trying to improve it:
We’ve all heard over and over again about that government program ‘Cash for Clunkers.’ It’s got drivers thinking about what exactly happens to dead cars, regardless of how they die. Shawn Allee looks at how car recycling works and who’s trying to improve it:
You might not think about it this way, but your car just might be the biggest thing you own that gets recycled.
I mean, someday you’re going to junk it, or maybe some future owner will. Anyway, I’m out in front of a car shop in my neighborhood, and with the health of cars in mind, I thought I’d ask some people around here, percentage-wise, just how much of a junked car gets recycled?
“I would say maybe, like, 5% of the car.”
“I’ll say, 20% – 30% probably, of a car.”
“I guess the recycled one could be 30% of the car.”
“I guess, like, 50%.”
In my little unscientific survey here, it turns out that most people are giving a pretty low estimate of how much of a junked car ends up being recycled.
The auto industry and the federal environmental protection agency say about 80% of the junked car gets recycled. The rest heads to landfills. That sounds pretty good, but that means we bury about five million tons of junked car pieces each year.
To understand why they can’t recycle even more of the car, I’m going to talk with Jim Watson.
He runs ABC Auto Wreckers in a suburb just south of Chicago.
“We don’t want to landfill anything. The objective is to take the vehicle, process it and have all the parts be used.”
Watson shows me his shop where he pulls parts for the used market. A dozen workers lift hoods, twist tires, and pull out stuff I don’t even recognize. It’s like an assembly line in reverse.
“They do an analysis and inventory each of the parts of the car that have a probability of sale and then they harvest or pull those parts off the car.”
Watson and some of the bigger auto wreckers have parts-scrapping down to a science, but it’s expensive to keep pulling parts and keep space open for scrap yards.
Eventually, Watson’s pulls off everything usefull and he’ll send it to a car shredder.
“A machine that beats it apart and shreds the car into small fist-sized or hand-sized components.”
Recyclers can pull out big shreds of steel and aluminum, but about 20% of the car is left-over. This shredder residue gets tossed into landfills. But scientists are thinking about how to recycle this shredded mess.
One works at a lab at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.
“This is what shredder residue looks like.”
Dr. Bassam Jody reaches into a cardboard box and scoops a jumble of car seat foam, metal cable, wood, and shards of plastic.
Jody says shredder residue is a recycler’s nightmare.
“Maybe there are more than twenty different kinds of plastics. I tell you, plastics are generally incompatible, they don’t like each other and they don’t work together very well.”
Jody is developing machines to safely clean and separate all this stuff. It’s tough science.
Jody: “The more things you have in the mixture, the harder it is to separate. The trick is, you have to do it economically, and to produce materials that can be used in value-added products.”
Allee: “What can you make out of them?”
Jody: “Car parts. For example, this is a seating column cover.”
Jody says he gets a kick out of his work. He might just squeeze a bit more good out of our cars.
For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.