How Scrapyards Recycle Junk Cars

It’s easy for us to reuse or recycle plenty of everyday items – plastic bottles and bags, glass containers, clothes, and so on. But what about cars? It just so happens that if your vehicles end up at a junkyard, they get recycled without any extra effort on your part. Unlike with your plastic water bottles, though, the car-recycling process isn’t about going green; it’s about salvaging usable materials from the vehicle for profit. Whatever the motivation, the effect is the same: some of the car is reused, and the rest is recycled.

Before diving into the details, let’s talk about the decision to junk your old car. If it’s truly past the point of no return, a junkyard is probably the best place for it; you could even make some money from selling it as scrap metal. However, just because a vehicle won’t start doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Companies like will pay to take your junk car off your hands, and they’ll even tow it away for free. In that case, your car will likely be repaired and sold to someone who’s looking for an affordable vehicle that’ll last for several more years.

How Scrapyards Recycle Junk Cars

For cars that aren’t destined to run again, however, a junkyard will provide a meaningful end for their long lives. In other words, approximately 80% of each car will be recycled instead of being left rusting to bits. In fact, the main requirement that junkyards have for old vehicles is that they aren’t too rusty; if too much of a car has been overtaken by rust, the metal can’t be recycled. Assuming a car is in good enough condition to be fully recycled at the junkyard, here’s what would happen.

They’ll remove the fluids

This first step is carefully regulated. If engine oil, gasoline, brake fluid, and other fluids from thousands of cars per year were left to filter into the groundwater from each junkyard, that could seriously affect nearby populations and ecosystems alike. To make sure these regulations are followed, there are pretty hefty penalties established for infractions.

However, junkyard employees don’t just dispose of these fluids properly because they’re motivated by the threat of fines; they also do it for their own safety, and that of their customers. Many of these substances (such as gasoline) are highly flammable, or generate toxic fumes. With junkyard employees working with these cars every day, plus the possibility of customers exploring the junkyard to look for the right parts, it’s key to keep these hazards to a minimum.

Usable car parts are taken out

If your car ends up at an auto recycling center, its main value will come from the steel frame. Some auto recyclers will send the car for a quick detour to the local junkyard, which is where it’ll be stripped of its parts, both interior and exterior. Even if they can’t salvage a lot of the parts, they’ll still find plenty that are intact. From the transmission to the axles to the headlights, there’ll be something that they can refurbish. Once that’s done, it’s back to the auto recycler for the next step.

They shred the car frame

The car’s frame is shredded, including whatever bits are left behind after being stripped for parts. At the end of the process, what you end up with is a jumble of small pieces of metal, plus extra materials called “auto fluff” – wood or plastic from interior paneling, rubber from hoses and tires, glass from windows and windshields, and whatever else ended up in the shredder. This unfortunately includes heavy metals such as lead and cadmium; even though they’re known to be harmful without proper containment, there aren’t currently any laws to keep them out of the landfills. Hopefully this will change with improved recycling technology and more forward-thinking regulations.

Back to the shredded metal – after all, that’s what the auto recyclers were after in the first place. At this stage it’s in hand-sized pieces, a combination of non-ferrous and ferrous metals. They’re easily separated with the help of a gigantic magnet, which is important since the manufacturers who will eventually buy the metals need to know exactly what they’re getting.

The old steel is combined with new steel

Steel from old cars is used in the manufacture of new ones, but you can’t simply melt it down and turn it into a new car frame; it has to be mixed with new steel first for improved strength. The process contributes several million tons of “new” steel yearly, which helps the profit margins of auto makers, as well as lessening environmental impact through reduced steel-mining emissions. 

The metals are sent to manufacturers

This step isn’t terribly interesting, except that it may affect how much you get paid for your junk car. That’s right – if an auto recycling center has to pay to ship the metals over a longer distance, that’ll be reflected in how much they give you for the scrap metal. In order to optimize their profit margins, they aren’t going to absorb the extra cost of shipping themselves; it’ll come out of your check instead. 

Do junk cars produce a lot of used parts?

As long as the vehicle isn’t extremely deteriorated, it can usually supply junkyards with some spare parts. Even so, they won’t always be that valuable; factors like the vehicle’s age, make and model, and mileage will influence the usability of the car parts. On the other hand, junkyards can be invaluable resources for anyone who’s looking for old or obscure car parts; you never know when you’ll get lucky!

If you’re planning on buying used car parts, keep in mind that some are more reliable than others. It’s easy to tell how much use an axle has left in it; that’s a lot trickier with something like a transmission. Then there are the electronic components, which can be tested using special equipment. When in doubt, double-check with a mechanic you trust; they’ll tell you whether or not you’re picking out the right parts.


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