Your car gets a new life after its last ride

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crap yards aren’t just automotive garbage dumps, where cars rust into oblivion. Some 75 per cent of the average car’s content, by weight, can be recycled. And recycled they are – more than newspapers, more than glass bottles, more than any other consumer product on the planet.

How much of each vehicle is recycled depends on the model, age and condition of the vehicle and what sort of wrecker it goes to. Auto recyclers – like Hank’s Auto Wreckers in St. Clements and Paleshi Motors in Elmira – pull usable parts off the vehicle and resell them, while scrap metal dealers sell the cars to shredders for metal recovery. About 500 cars roll into the dismantling bays at Hank’s Auto Wreckers every year.

The recycling process starts when a car is unloaded in the lot. First all of the usable parts are inventoried using a laptop and computerized inventory system. When all the parts - usually between 100 and 150 - have been inventoried, the list is uploaded to the company’s server.

Most of the parts are sold to yards and repair shops. Everything Hank’s has in inventory is listed on a popular used parts website and they’ve sold parts to every continent except Antarctica – including, once, a taillight to the Vatican.

The scrapping industry is driven by demand for used parts, but it follows the same technological road as the auto manufacturing industry, just eight or 10 years behind.

Cars rolling off the assembly line today are immensely more complicated than they were 40 or 50 years ago, packing more options into a smaller space. Things like air bags, antilock brakes and air conditioning didn’t exist then but are standard today.

“Years ago, it was 12 to 20 pieces you’d inventory,” said Mike Nissen.

New parts were so cheap that no one would bother trying to track down a used one unless it was some something major, like a transmission. Hank’s Auto Wreckers didn’t need a computerized inventory system because Hank could keep track of where everything was in his head.

With 100,000 parts on the lot, that’s just not possible anymore. Not only do they remove more parts from each vehicle, but there’s more variation between makes and model years. And cars just last longer; with manufacturers offering 10-year, 100,000-kilometer warranties, they have to keep parts in stock longer than they used to.

Recyclers like Hank’s and Paleshi Motors tend to deal in newer vehicles. If your four-year-old Corolla gets crunched in a collision, there are lots of other four-year-old Corollas still on the road that can use the parts. If you drive your jalopy until it’s a rolling rust wagon, it’s more likely to go straight to a crusher, because there’s little demand for parts that old.

Scrap dealers can offer higher prices for old cars than recyclers can; they don’t have the expenses involved in dismantling and draining cars before sending them to the crusher. Cars that are crushed without being de-polluted can leach those fluids back into the environment.

“Right now, our estimates are that less than half of vehicles are de-polluted before going to a crushing state,” said Steve Fletcher, president of the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association.

That’s where the Retire Your Ride program comes in. Owners of 1995 and older vehicles that are still running can turn them in for $300 cash or a rebate on a newer vehicle. The idea is to get older, high-polluting cars off the road.
It’s no coincidence that Retire Your Ride originated with recyclers. It stems partly from honest concern for the environment, but it’s also good for business. To receive cars through Retire Your Ride, wreckers have to follow a national code of practice to ensure that hazardous materials are dealt with properly. That means salvage is directed away from scrap dealers and toward recyclers, who are set up for dismantling and de-polluting cars.
“It makes it economically viable for us to handle them. We would never buy some of these vehicles coming through [without Retire Your Ride],” explained Derek Nissen.

Regulations a key part in scrapping

Steve Fletcher believes that the national code of practice developed for Retire Your Ride will eventually become an industry standard; if you want to handle scrap cars, you’ll be required to follow certain standards. In the meantime, membership in OARA isn’t required to be in the scrapping business, and OARA can’t tell non-members how to run their businesses.

“Right now there’s not a lot of great oversight and that’s why we have an industry where cars can flow the way the lowest common denominator and the highest amount of dollars can encourage,” he said. “If you don’t have the properly regulated industry that’s processing the vehicles, you end up with a legitimate business saying ‘I can pay $50 for the vehicle because I have to do all these things to it and record it’ and the unlicensed backyarder can say ‘I’ll pay $200 for that because I don’t worry about ozone, I don’t worry about oil, I don’t worry about mercury, I don’t worry about records.’”

Where self-regulation stops, environmental legislation takes over. The next big driver of change to Ontario’s scrapping industry will be updates to the province’s Waste Diversion Act. Two years ago, the government launched a review of the 2002 act, a process that is ongoing. One concept the government is studying is extended producer responsibility, which ties the manufacturer of a product into its recycling or disposal. The idea is to encourage manufacturers to design products so they can be recycled and make sure that the recycling happens upon disposal.
“The provincial government has sent signals to manufacturers and recyclers that we need to look at EPR because not all vehicles are being handled properly,” Fletcher said.

Aside from manufacturers and recyclers, there’s another party who’s going to be increasingly asked to take a role in a vehicle’s last rites: the person sitting in the driver’s seat. You may not have given much thought to what happens to your car when it won’t transport you anymore, but you should. A car is the single biggest item the average consumer will discard. Even more than sorting your glass and cans and dropping off your old cell phone, you should share some responsibility for what happens to it.

“Ultimately there’s a role for the public to play,” Fletcher said. “They don’t really know where their car goes and what happens to it, and if somebody says ‘we’ll pay you top dollar for your vehicle and treat it properly,’ well, what does that mean?”

Joni Miltenburg
Joni has a journalism background that includes a Bachelor of Journalism from Carleton University and a stint as a community newspaper reporter at The Observer. She also holds a Bachelor of Science from Dalhousie University. Prior to moving to Calgary, she was the marketing coordinator for the Sackville Business Association in Nova Scotia. Joni’s interests include information design and responsive web design.