Recyclable cars: What parts end up in the trash?

Which parts of your car end up as landfill?

4 min read

Individual plastics are separated for recycling.
Individual plastics are separated for recycling. Argonne National Laboratory/Flickr

Each year, around 10 million vehicles are disposed of in the United States. Before vexing your conscience though, you should know that over 95 percent of these "retired" cars head straight to one of the 7,000 vehicle recycling operations around the country and 75 percent of these cars' parts are completely recycled, letting cars claim top spot as the world's most recycled product.

Here DriverSide explores what happens to these automotive materials:


As the hottest commodity at the moment, steel, iron and other metals comprise about 65 percent of the average vehicle, making the reuse of this product vital to overall automotive recycling efforts. Although reuse of metals started alongside the advent of the automobile, they're more popular than ever before. With construction exploding in rapidly developing countries like China, traders are snatching metals up to sell, and some older cars are now actually worth more for their steel than for their originally intended 'automotive' function. Naturally this means, according to the Steel Recycling Institute, that virtually all of this material is recovered for reuse. Wheels, engines, transmissions, wiring and body shells get shredded and filtered by ferrous scrap processors and the material is then sold to steel mills. Your trashed '79 El Camino could be having a second life as a part of an Indian skyscraper.


70 percent of all lead now used in the U.S. is found in car batteries. Fortunately, we've known about the toxicity of lead for a while now and recycling systems have been in place for years. Some batteries have enough life to be reconditioned for resale, but the dead ones go to lead reclaiming plants where the toxic substance is extracted to use in new batteries.

"Nearly 90 percent of all lead-acid batteries are recycled," confirms Latisha Petteway, Spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "Almost any retailer that sells lead-acid batteries collects used batteries for recycling, as required by most state laws."


In 2005, the Rubber Manufacturer's Association estimated, based on U.S. census reports, that 299 million tires were discarded. That's a helluva lot of miles covered. Good news: 86 percent of that number was reused. While today's tires are complex, they are also extremely recyclable. The rubber from old tires makes it into a multitude of materials, from pavements to playground covering. Some are used to create more tires, 16.255 million in 2005 were retreaded - though very few of those were for passenger cars, due to economic factors. They are also able to fuel cement kilns, boilers and paper mills as well.


Oil, that fussy liquid which needs to be changed every few thousand miles, isn't just tossed away at lube shops. 380 million gallons are reused or recycled each year in America. It goes through a refining process and comes out squeaky clean (well, as clean as an oil can be) as a base stock for lubricating oil. The problem is that many do-it-yourselfers change their own oil, and the irresponsible ones send roughly 120 million gallons down the drain instead of taking it to a collection center, local auto parts store or garage.

Used gear oil, windshield wiper solution, brake fluid, power steering fluid, antifreeze and transmission fluid can contain some seriously toxic substances, including lead and the highly poisonous ethylene glycol. But if you drop it off at a collection site, each of these fluids can either be blended and utilized as an alternate fuel source or restored.

What Isn't Recycled

The recyclability of certain materials has eluded experts for years. Glass is just one such problem. Those windows protecting you from errant rocks and bugs are coated in a laminate, and sometimes have defrosting wiring and tinting, all of which complicate the recycling process.

Roughly 12 million tons of ferrous and non-ferrous metals are recycled each year, but according to Petteway, "about 20 percent of the scrap feed (or auto shredder residue) remains after metals recovery - consisting primarily of glass, plastics, rubber, fabrics and dirt."

While we've come far in our auto recycling efforts over the years, the amount we are unable to reuse adds up quickly.

"Nearly all of the over 3 million tons of auto shredder residue generated in the U.S. each year is land filled," continues Petteway, "recovery of specific materials from ASR (auto shredder residue) is difficult due to the physical nature of ASR, contamination, weak markets for major recoverable materials - such as polyurethane foam, rubber, and glass - and the processing needed to meet market specifications."

Not all is lost though; Scientists at Illinois' Argonne National Laboratory say they're close to completing a facility that recycles the leftovers from junked vehicles. Manufacturers are also stepping up to the plate. The VW-Scion process maximizes the recovery of materials that would have previously been shredded and land filled. Ford and Mazda reuse plastic bumpers in the creation of new vehicles as well and Acura's 2009 TL is 90 percent recyclable.

With renewable resources and environmental protection on the forefront of design and manufacturing now, the time when we should start seeing recycling hit new levels of success is right around the corner.

By Alison Lakin, DriverSide Associate Editor