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Auto Tech: Automobile recycling

We are all excited when a new shiny vehicle appears in our driveway, and many are interested in how cars and trucks are built and perform. It’s a different story when a vehicle is no longer roadworthy, and that old hulk is traded in, sold or hauled away. We really don’t care, as long as it disappears to somewhere, but we should: there were over twelve million new vehicles sold last year in North America. This is down from a record 17 million a few years earlier, but in the long run, these vehicles will serve their useful purpose and have to be disposed of. Unlike in the past, where old vehicles were left to sit and rust, today these vehicles still have value and that is where automobile recyclers come into play.

We used to call them wrecking yards or salvage yards. Now they are referred to as automotive recyclers, and that is an accurate description of what they do. When a vehicle enters their workplace, it is evaluated and major serviceable parts are removed from the vehicle for resale. It may be an engine, transmission or even body parts, depending on the demand of the marketplace for used parts. Think of this as the ultimate in green environmental consciousness: instead of using new materials and the cost of producing and shipping a new part, a good serviceable used part is put back on the road again.

After the good parts are used, the rest of the vehicle still has value. Bodies are crushed, shredded and sorted into different materials. Currently, over 75% of an automobile is easily recyclable, and in Europe and Japan, they are trying to regulate it so 95% can be recycled. Seventy per cent of a modern vehicle’s weight is made up of steel and cast iron, and more than 40 per cent of all new steel in North America comes from this recycled metal. Lighter metals such as aluminum, copper, zinc and magnesium make up a much smaller percentage of a vehicle’s total weight but are still a significant volume. It is much cheaper to recycle aluminum than it is to mine the ore and produce new aluminum. Not only is it environmentally sound, recycling it takes a lot less electrical energy.

Currently, about 24% of the vehicle ends up as automotive shredder residue (ASR), which includes materials such as plastics, adhesives, rubber, glass, dirt and foam. Current automotive direction is to include more plastics in vehicles to reduce weight and increase fuel economy, and auto manufacturers are helping the recycling process by marking plastic parts with the type of material they are made of so they can be sorted easier. Other parts, such as rubber, can be separated out and reused in a different form. For example, Ford is making engine gaskets out of shredded tires for several of its vehicles.

Other materials, such as glues, resins and foams may not be as easily recyclable but they can be used as fuel sources to help power recycling facilities and research is ongoing to determine how to best utilize these and other materials.

Looking at new vehicles, manufacturers are increasingly finding new ways of incorporating recycled materials into their vehicles. Bamboo, a quic- growing grass, is used by several as reinforcement in moulded underbody panels. This reduces the amount of petroleum needed to manufacture plastics. Recently, I saw how Ford’s new Focus Electric car will have seat material manufactured from recycled plastic water bottles. Not only was this a good use of a product often sent to the landfill, the seat material looked great and felt very luxurious. You would never guess it was derived from a plastic bottle!

Other Ford recycling initiatives include valve covers on the Fusion, Escape, Mustang and F150 made of 100 per cent recycled carpet. The Ecolon nylon resin made from the carpets results in a reduction of more than 430,000 gallons of oil used, not to mention the carpet that doesn’t go to the land fill. Another example is the 2012 Focus, which will have carpet and sound deadening material manufactured from used clothing.

These examples are from one manufacturer. The others are using recycled materials too, to both lower production costs and protect our environment. There is a social consciousness in the automotive industry, and recycling is one part of it.

By Jim Kerr

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