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Life beyond the scrapyard? How auto visionaries are reimagining car recycling

The billion-dollar business is being disrupted by voices advocating for better environmental practices.

by Mark Toljagic, Toronto Star

When you set up an auto-wrecking yard on the edge of an environmentally sensitive watershed, you can anticipate some pushback.

But when Ken Gold bought 11 acres of rural land north of the Toronto Zoo in Scarborough in 1979, he embraced the criticism and modelled his junkyard after a state-of-the-art automotive recycling centre, recognizing that the industry couldn’t continue to scrap cars the old way.

Junkyards have always stripped old autos of valuable items: tires and rims come off, batteries removed, and drivetrains drained of fluids. Gold introduced an operation to harvest components, clean and resell them.

“We realized the best thing we could do for the environment is reclaim components, catalogue them properly and offer them for sale to be put back into vehicles,” said Ken’s son, David Gold, who is now the president of Standard Auto Wreckers.

The advent of bar codes, scanners and computerized inventory software propelled their business model forward, and Standard became, well, the standard for Canadian auto recyclers. Yet only about 35 per cent of vehicles that have reached the end of their service life are dismantled properly to extract all the recyclable materials, according to a report prepared for Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The remainder are shredded by metal recyclers or shipped overseas to be put back on the road again. Despite representing a treasure trove of materials that potentially could be recycled into new products, end-of-life vehicles are not yielding as much as could be expected.

“Plastics, fabrics, foams are all shredder ‘fluff’ that is bound for landfill because the economics of it doesn’t make sense,” said David Gold. Ultimately, it’s the hulk of the car that lends itself best to recycling. Gold said auto shredders have become efficient at turning old hatchbacks and pickups into raw metal for reuse. Some even incorporate “mini-mills” at the end of the line that churn out new metal rebars for use by the construction industry.

Gold said he wants to see more co-operation from automakers. “They don’t provide any information on dismantling their vehicles,” he said. “We’re working on a Right to Repair Act. Maybe it’s time for a Right to Recycle Act, as well.”

To that end, Stellantis — which assembles Chrysler and Dodge vehicles in Canada — has a plan to generate more than $2.6 billion in savings by extending the life of its vehicles and parts through its “circular economy” unit that loops production scraps and end-of-life vehicles back into the manufacturing process.

Some 4.5 million multibrand parts will be sold in 155 countries under the automaker’s B-Parts e-commerce platform, while used, worn and defective parts will be dismantled and remanufactured to factory specifications. Stellantis will introduce its SUSTAINera label adorning parts and accessories made with up to 80 per cent less material and half the energy compared to equivalent new parts.

It’s a progressive move by a global car company, but Karen Wirsig, plastics program manager at Environmental Defence Canada, said she wants to see more being done to get plastics out of automobiles and out of waste streams: “We need to see other materials used. Or use plastics that can be easily dismantled and recovered, such as single polymers.”

Originally appeared in the Toronto Star, Nov. 18, 2022

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