While it can be easy to make junk disappear from your basement or garage, there’s actually a lot that goes into ensuring that as little as possible ends up in landfill. Consider the case with cars: More than 95 percent of them are recycled once they reach the end of the road—that’s more than 12 million vehicles annually—and if you look at the rates by weight, approximately 84 percent of each vehicle is recycled.
In fact, so much of the typical junked car gets reused, recycled, or turned into energy that we only have the space to scratch the surface here.
Steel Sets the Standard
Even as automakers are investigating lighter materials like aluminum, the majority of what’s in today’s cars and trucks is still steel. This is a good thing, because steel is relatively easy to recycle, with a low impact on the environment. Just due to differences in the smelting process, using scrap steel instead of fresh iron ore reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 2,205 pounds per vehicle recycled. And completing the automotive circle of life, about 25 percent of the steel used in new-vehicle bodies is recaptured from junked cars and trucks.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Scrapped tires account for another big chunk of the automotive-recycling business, as about 103 million were recycled in 2014 alone—99 percent of that from cars and trucks. As with steel, some of this finds its way back into new vehicles—especially into new tires—and a certain amount is used for wheels of other products, like lawn mowers. But roughly one-third of the scrap rubber goes for ground/floor surfacing, such as around playgrounds or in rubberized asphalt.
Getting the Lead out
EPA efforts have helped to ensure that 99 percent of the lead from typical automotive batteries is recycled, melted down and reused in new batteries. It’s a similar story with the plastic battery cases as well, since that material also can be cleaned and melted into reusable plastic for future cases. Even the acid in the batteries can be recycled, either by neutralizing it so that it can be turned into clean water, or by processing it into sodium sulfate, for laundry detergent, for example.
A Clear Look at Windshields
Modern-day windshields are made from two layers of glass, with a strong, thin layer of plastic between to help limit shattering and breakage in case of an accident. That’s great for safety, of course, but it used to limit recycling efforts, because it was so tricky to separate the two materials. Well, recyclers have come up with some tricks of their own, so that the glass now can be transformed into fiberglass for insulation or included in building materials, while the plastic can see a second life as carpet backing.
Recycling Those Rugs
Carpeting is not readily biodegradable, meaning that billions of pounds of it get sent to dumps each year. But automotive carpet is often made of post-consumer recyclables in the first place, including in some cases, old water bottles. These carpets can be processed at the end of their life cycle, and re-used for more carpeting, as well as parts like cylinder-head covers, and lumber-like items, such as home decking and railroad ties.
Charles Krome is a writer for CARFAX who stays up on the latest trends in automotive sustainability.