It’s no small irony that one of the most recycled products in the world is too big for the recycling bin. Yet, each year nearly every car taken off the road is recycled for its steel content. In fact, the very roots of automobile recycling lie in the steel industry’s need for ferrous scrap.
Steel is most frequently the material of choice for vehicle manufacturing, as it is strong, durable, affordable and sustainable. As our nation’s fleet of vehicles grew, manufacturers and scrap processors alike came to realize the additional benefits of steel’s infinite recyclability. In the United States, each year around 14 million tons of steel is recycled from automobiles. Because of the economic and environmental benefits of recycling automotive steel, vehicles are too valuable of a resource to simply bury in a landfill when they are no longer in service.
Realizing the importance of end-of-life scenarios for a giant fleet of automobiles, car manufacturers are designing their vehicles with a long-term view of how the components can be refurbished, reused or recycled. And when these vehicles are made from steel, the car is both made with recycled content and is recyclable at the end of its use. Steel scrap is part of the process in making new steel. As a result, automakers have been using recycled material to make new cars for decades.
How much recycled material? Over half of an automobile is made of steel and iron, and all of these steel car parts contain a minimum of 25 percent recycled steel. However, many internal steel and iron parts such as engine blocks are made using an even higher percentage of recycled steel.
The steel industry has also made great strides in the production of steel to minimize the environmental impact, and has designed new lighter, stronger steels to increase vehicle safety and fuel economy.
How do cars become steel scrap?
The steel industry, together with the scrap processing industry, is responsible for laying the groundwork for the efficient recycling infrastructure for automobiles that exists today. In an effort to provide more steel scrap to the growing steel industry and reduce the vehicle’s end-of-life impact on the environment, the two industries worked collectively in the early 1960s to develop the first automobile shredders. Today, a network of dismantlers and shredders effectively process the millions of vehicles taken off the road each year.
Automobiles begin their end-of-life journey with a brief but essential stop at one of the estimated 7,000 automobile dismantlers in North America. Auto dismantlers remove potentially hazardous materials and salvage selected components. Selected items such as engines and transmissions, as well as other auto parts in relatively good condition, are resold to the public or auto repair garages and body shops.
Even a car in the very worst shape may still contain some valuable working parts that can be used to repair other vehicles. These car dismantlers remove tires, batteries, fluids and any reusable parts. Selected items such as engines and transmissions, as well as other auto parts in relatively good condition, are resold to the public or auto repair garages and body shops. After removing reusable components, auto hulks are flattened and shipped to a scrap processor, where they are weighed for payment and unloaded.
After removing reusable components, auto hulks are flattened and shipped to a scrap processor, where they are weighed for payment and unloaded. Ferrous scrap processors provide an invaluable service to the steel industry by preparing automobiles, appliances, cans and other types of steel scrap for consumption by steel mills. The scrap recycling industry closes the loop in the manufacturing supply chain and represents a key component in creating a circular economy.
At a ferrous scrap yard, the shredder is the primary piece of equipment for preparing automobile hulks for recycling. Shredding a car breaks it down into its basic materials so they may be separated for recycling. In addition, steel mills prefer shredded steel scrap because it can be handled and melted in its furnaces more efficiently. While cars are the commodities most often fed to a shredder, appliances, bicycles and other steel products are also shredded for recycling.
There are more than 350 scrap yards in North America equipped with automobile shredders, with the large majority found in the United States. Generally, an automobile shredder consists of a sprawling network of conveyors and a large, rectangular central unit, which houses the actual shredding equipment.
Steel components, which comprise the majority of the automobile, are magnetically separated and eventually discharged from the conveyor to form large piles of shredded steel scrap. Nonferrous metals are hand-sorted from a conveyor belt and shipped to their appropriate end markets.
The remaining, less-recyclable materials, often referred to as fluff, consist of bits of plastic, rubber, fabric and glass, and makes up approximately 25 percent of a vehicle’s waste.
These materials are currently landfilled, although experiments on potential uses, including pyrolysis, particle recycling and energy recovery are underway. About 3 million tons of fluff are landfilled each year.
Steel scrap is the single largest ingredient, raw materials or otherwise, needed to make new steel. Increases in technology continue to push the steel industry’s capacity to recycle steel to even greater levels.
Like any other raw material, steel scrap has true economic value. As a result, it is collected and prepared for recycling from a variety of sources for its market value as well as for the energy savings and natural resource conservation it provides to the steel industry.
Automobile recycling provides a steady steam of high-quality steel scrap needed to make new steel. The auto shred is baled and sold to steel mills to meet this demand. There, the shredded steel is combined with other steel scrap to produce new steel. The whole process is an excellent example of how economics can drive recycling.
Several environmental benefits are realized from the steel industry’s demand for automobile scrap. For the steel industry, using recycled steel to make new steel means saving energy and natural resources.
Recycling a single car conserves more than 2500 pounds of iron ore, 1400 pounds of coal and 120 pounds of limestone. In addition, a single recycled car reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 8,800 pounds — the equivalent of 450 gallons of gasoline. Through recycling, the steel industry annually saves the equivalent energy to electrically power about 18 million households a year.
Jim Woods is the Sr. Director of Sustainability Communications for the American Iron and Steel Institute. For more information on the recycling and benefits of automobile recycling, visit: recycle-steel.org, or follow us on Twitter at @EnviroMetal.