Simple, Scalable Ways to Recycle Used Auto Parts

Production delays and growing environmental awareness make recycling feasible and profitable.

Ray Hatch

July 5, 2022

4 Min Read
Auto Glass Recycling Facility
Auto glass can be recycled into jars, asphalt, fiberglass insulation.Quest Resource Management Group

The auto industry is feeling the heat now more than ever.

Commodity costs have spiked between 200% and 300%, and auto parts costs, some 67% higher now than two years ago, continue to climb.

In addition to ongoing resource consumption, demand is outstripping supply due to the lack of production. This has caused increasing fragmentation of production, leading to longer lead times and causing some potential vehicle buyers to seek other options.

The industry is starting to adapt to a world of finite resources as environmental awareness grows and factors such as ESG, sustainability and compliance push the marketplace. (Look at the rise in electric vehicles as an early indicator.) So, why not put a greater focus on recycling used auto parts if they maintain practicality and value? Fortunately, most auto materials are recyclable, and doing so can benefit your company’s bottom line. 

Review the roadmap of materials below as a scalable starting point to see how the auto industry can adopt circular economy strategies to improve sustainability.

SCRAP METAL

What to know: Did you know General Motors makes $1 billion a year by recycling waste, including scrap metal?

Don’t lose out on opportunities to improve your business’s bottom line by not sending scrap metal to the landfill. Recycling metals is a great way to offset operational costs (and your company’s carbon emissions) and add to your revenue stream. 

What can be recycled, and how: You can sell aluminum rims, axles, handles, body panels and other metal components from end-of-life vehicles to scrap metal companies. From there, it can be shredded and melted for reuse. A good bonus is that metal can withstand continual recycling without losing quality.

Tip: The demand for aluminum is expected to continue increasing as a substitute for steel. Keep an eye out for market changes, as it may be beneficial to invest in aluminum parts or recycle them down the road.

PLASTIC COMPONENTS

What to know: Approximately 14 million tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, making plastic one of the most serious challenges to our world’s health. Vehicle makers are shying away from traditional materials that are more difficult to recycle (e.g., leather) and turning to (recycled) plastics to reduce weight, cut down on emissions and increase safety. 

What can be recycled, and how: The plastic recycling process includes sorting, shredding, washing, melting and pelletizing. Recycled plastic can be used to make anything from seat cushions to dashboards and bumpers. 

GLASS

What to know: Discarded auto glass can take thousands of years to degrade in a landfill, making it the perfect material to reclaim and recycle. While glass has been a recyclable material for some time in residential programs, recycling auto glass is a relatively new endeavor that continues to grow. A substantial benefit is that glass is one of the most adaptable substances on Earth, with countless uses. 

What can be recycled, and how: Windows and windscreens can be challenging to recycle because they’re often fixed between layers of plastic. Fortunately, vehicle design and recycling technology have improved, allowing glass to be recovered, crushed and melted into new products such as jars, asphalt and fiberglass insulation. 

Other Materials

  • Car batteries contain toxic chemicals that can be highly damaging to the environment if not collected by drop-off locations and recycling centers. The lead must be separated from the plastic case to be melted down and reused to manufacture new batteries. 

  • Engine oil doesn’t evaporate; it simply gets dirty and can be recycled and reused over and over. In fact, used oil that is collected and refined again is actually of higher quality than the original product. Refining used motor oil removes contaminants such as fuel, water and dirt to produce a new base oil. Several other oils and petroleum-based products can be recycled/refined, including transmission fluids, coolants and hydraulic fluids.

  • Tires (and other rubber materials) can be recycled using shredding and cryogenic grinding to turn the tires into many substances, such as asphalt, synthetic turf and playground floors. Tires are largely dependent on natural resources, with rubber being a primary component that comes from trees grown in Southeast Asia. The trees take several years to mature – and once fully grown, they must be sapped every day for the next two decades. 

  • Recycling infrastructure also can handle certain specialty components, including seat belt tensioners, tire pressure sensors and airbags. Research or consult a waste expert to determine what processes exist for them.

Ray Hatch headshot.jpg

Ray Hatch headshot

Supporting long-term sustainability and supply-chain stability requires the auto industry to rethink how cars are manufactured, used and finally recycled, moving from an extractive model to a circular one. In closed-loop approaches, end-of-life materials are viewed as valuable raw materials to recycle rather than discard. Improving your business’s sustainability can be simple and profitable and offers the opportunity to build a new auto ecosystem that seeks not just to do less harm, but also enable a bright new world of possibilities. 

Ray Hatch (pictured, above left) has served as president and CEO of Quest Resource Management Group since February 2016.

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