In many ways the traditional car has become a symbol of everything that threatens the environment. While many focus on tailpipe emissions, there is a sizeable army of people and organizations who are focusing on bulk materials that make up the car itself.


Beautiful and functional mulch from ground tires.

The car itself is in most ways a model of reusability and recycle-ability. Anyone who has watched just one episode of American Pickers knows that even 100-year old rusted auto bodies are being snapped up for reuse.

According to the EPA, 80% of of cars today are already being recycled, with the focus on repurposing increasing each year.

Here are more specific numbers drawn from the United States Council for Automotive Research LLC, otherwise known as USCAR. Market-driven infrastructures for recycling process more than 95% of United States automobiles without adding any economic hardship to consumers in the form of taxes or cost. As a matter of fact, these recycled cars give added financial benefit to consumers in a variety of ways. In addition, about 85% by weight, of all automobiles in our nation are repurposed.

Auto Wreckers, Scrap Metal, and Resale of Parts

Auto wrecking yards aren't going to win any beauty contests, but they are an enduring—really, really enduring—symbol of reuse. Nobody wants one in his neighborhood, but when you're looking for a fender from a 1976 Chevy Caprice, you're really glad there's a wrecking yard across town in the industrial area. In fact, we should tip our hats to the automotive wrecking and salvage industry. They were recycling and reusing, in a sweet combination of green technology and capitalism, long before it became environmentally fashionable.

Generations of teenage boys have learned to love the local auto wrecking yard as they've been able to keep their hoopty rides on the road while being funded by nothing more than the part-time job they have flipping burgers at the local fast food joint.

Before we leave the subject of the various metal parts in a car, there are a few more issues to discuss. Unfortunately, not every metal part can be reused. Some are simply broken beyond repair. Others, such as mufflers, are not suitable for reuse.

These parts are known as scrap metal, and there is a market for it. In fact, some curbside recycling programs will accept up to 336 pounds of scrap metal. Theoretically, you could take a hacksaw to your old car and set it out for pickup ... over time. However, the local wrecking and salvage yard is set up to recycle all the metal parts and will usually pay you for your vehicle. Many metals can be melted down and reused to make new metal products, saving a lot of energy.

More than Huarache Soles

To be honest, so far we've only talked about the easy stuff. Cars do have some pretty environmentally nasty bits that need special care. Fortunately, recycling systems are in place to handle most, if not all, of these components.

Shoes made of recycled tires.

While automotive steel will rust and eventually "recycle" itself, old car tires and cockroaches are probably the only two things that will survive Armageddon. Fortunately, more uses are being found for recycled tires: road beds, playground turf and fuels. (We also understand that vendors in Tijuana are still using tires as soles on their handmade huarache sandals.)

Automotive batteries are a source of lead, and they definitely need to be disposed of properly. Most states have "take back" laws that require sellers to give owners a few bucks for their old batteries when they purchase a new one. Because of this, car batteries are the most recycled common item in the United States today. Recyclers use them to make new batteries.

A Slippery Issue

Oil and oil filers can also be recycled. Oil change services do this, and DIYers can easily find local drop off locations for oil and oil filters. Other small parts that can be recycled are rubber hoses, belts, mats and carpets. We're even starting to see small companies that specialize in reusing auto upholstery to make items like wallets, jackets and bean bag furniture. Of course, pulling the seats out of a classic car and putting them in a man cave is always a good idea too!

Automotive glass, as with any glass, can be recycled, and this industry is growing. Recycling automotive glass, such as windshields, is not the same as recycling a glass soda pop bottle. Automotive safety glass has a layer of PVC between two sheets of glass. Crushers are now available that can separate the glass from the PVC. Bowls, shower doors, tiles and other products are being made from recycled windshield glass.

Some bits and pieces that are too small to be repurposed become what is called "fluff" in the recycling business. Fluff ends up in landfills and is often used to cover over a day's worth of landfill to keep it from blowing away.

Looking at the reusability and recycle-ability of the automobile highlights an interesting paradox. Automotive emissions have historically been seen as a threat to the environment because there are so many cars on the road in the United States. However, it's only because there are so many cars on the road that reuse and recycling are economically viable. Nearly 10 million vehicles are processed each year, making automobiles the most recycled product in the country.


Carrie Thompson works with Aspen Auto Clinic in Colorado, helping the population keep their cars one more year away from their recycling destiny.

Image License: Creative Commons

Image License: Creative Commons