Contributed by Gabe Vargas, Masters student at University of California, San Diego
For many in the Global North, our personal impact on the environment is inexorably connected to cars. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and everyday passenger cars account for a majority of the sector’s emissions.
What you might not know, is that the environmental impact of cars doesn’t just come from driving them. The industrial processes that bookend a car’s lifespan—its manufacture at the plant, and its disposal —have a disproportionate impact on the environment, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and other forms of pollution.
While we can decrease our miles traveled along the margin, it will be a long time before the built environment in countries like the US renders cars unnecessary. But, we can mitigate the impact of other sources of our cars’ pollution by recycling them.
Why recycle cars?
Automotive recycling has several key environmental benefits. It diverts waste from landfills—importantly, both a large quantity of waste (10-12 million vehicles a year, according to Argonne National Laboratory, a leading institution researching car material recovery), and a disproportionate share of the hazardous waste that poisons our land and our communities’ water supplies. It allows parts to be reused further reducing environmental impact. It also decreases the demand for mining, preventing significant environmental damage associated with resource extraction. And it substantially decreases the carbon footprint associated with making new cars.
According to SellMax in San Jose, every year, car recyclers in the US and Canada produce sufficient steel to make 12,000,000 cars, recover parts that would have taken the energy equivalent of over 85,000,000 barrels of oil to replace, salvage 100,800,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel, 45,000,000 gallons of washer fluid, and 8,000,000 gallons of engine coolant. That’s a lot of hazardous liquids that could have otherwise ended up in American watersheds.
What can be saved?
The Backbone: Iron and steel
Iron and steel can be recovered from the cars’ frame—a significant fact, since these metals can make up over 60% of cars’ mass.
By 2010, according to Argonne National Laboratory, recovery of ferrous metals (iron and steel), from car recycling, constituted the largest source of scrap for the iron and steel industry. Producing recycled steel uses 74 percent less energy than steel made from scratch (remember this energy would still come from burning fossil fuels).
The Hidden Hazard: Tires
Few symbols of decaying cars are more emblematic or familiar than a tire fire—after all, one has featured prominently in the opening sequence of the popular cartoon The Simpsons for decades. And this fascination is somewhat justified—as a report by the municipal government of Lehigh County, PA summarizes, tire fires are incredibly dangerous They burn incredibly hot and produce toxic gases. , When put out with water, they leave behind a toxic slurry that contaminates groundwater and farmland.
When not ablaze, abandoned tires still threaten public health. When holding water, they provide habitats for mosquitos that carry West Nile Virus, Zika, and other diseases.
Once recycled, tires have many uses. They can be made into new roads, clean-burning fuel to replace dirty oils, and incorporated into liners for garden beds.
The Classic: Aluminum
Few materials for recycling are as familiar to the everyday consumer as aluminum. And there’s a reason that the image of tossing cans into blue bins has become so intimately linked with the process of recycling itself: aluminum recycling is one of the most efficient landfill-diverting processes.
According to a 2010 literature review by Subodh Dasand their team from the technical publication Light Metal Age, the recycling process converts up to 99% of aluminum into usable products. (a far higher rate than many other materials—and it can be repeated almost indefinitely). This results in less material entering landfills, and less aluminum being mined—which is extraordinarily important, given that aluminum mining largely occurs in destructive open pit mines. These mines devastate ecosystems, poison water sources for generations to come, and contribute to major human rights violations.
Aluminum recycling also saves enormous amounts of energy. According to the same review in Light Metal Age, recycling post-consumer aluminum saves up to 95% of the energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from mining, refining, and smelting aluminum by 95% as well. This is even more important than it sounds, because, as the Environmental Protection Agency reports, aluminum smelting releases large quantities of incredibly strong, long-lived greenhouse gasses known as perfluorocarbons. Each pound of these compounds released into the atmosphere has the same impact as releasing 9,200 pounds of carbon dioxide—and will remain in the atmosphere for over 10,000 years.
Aluminum was one of the first and most important metals to be recycled from cars. As early as the 1980s, SAE International, a leading professional organization for engineers predicted that automotive recycling projects focused on reclaiming aluminum from car frames would come a critical means of “decreasing disposal problems” associated with environmental contamination from used cars while “lower[ing] demands on material resources” to produce new vehicles.
Most aluminum in cars are now recycled, providing a significant boon to the environment.
As noted in a 2006 journal article by Muhamad Z. b. M. Sama and Gordon N. Blount, many other materials can also be economically recycled from cars—including resins, foam, glass, copper, and rare earth metals in catalytic converters. All of these require tremendous amounts of energy and pollution to produce, and are not biodegradable—that is, when placed in landfills, they will not decompose.
Despite their polluting effect, we’ll have to keep living with cars for a while. But at least we can provide a future for our rivers and atmosphere with auto recycling until they are obsolete.