Where cars go when they die

Neil Young speculated in his musical eulogy Long May You Run that the Beach Boys might have taken over the beloved 1948 Buick Roadmaster he had to abandon in Blind River.

If so, it’s probably because part of the old hearse was recycled into a fridge that is chilling Brian Wilson’s beer, says Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu of the University of Windsor.

The post-doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering has spent eight years studying where vehicles go when they die. Turns out most are stripped, shredded, sorted and resold as parts of other consumer products from appliances to lawn mowers.

“It mostly ends up in other in other products,” she said. “Wherever steel is used in manufacturing some portion of that comes from end-of-life vehicles. Could be in appliances, construction material, could even end up in another car.”

Every year 1.2 million vehicles in Canada reach what the industry calls “end-of-life.”

Large automotive dismantlers can process as many as 17,000 vehicles a year. With funding provided in part by the Auto21 network and the Ontario Automotive Recyclers Association, Sawyer-Beaulieu has been compiling a meticulous assessment of what goes into an auto-dismantling facility, what gets recycled and reused, and what gets shredded and ends up in a landfill.

As much as 12 per cent of the reusable parts — such as like starters and steering columns — are recovered before the remaining hulks are shipped off to the shredder for metals recovery.

Eighty per cent of a vehicle is recycled and reused in some way, Sawyer-Beaulieu said.

The goal is to find ways to recover as much as possible of the 20 per cent still going to the landfill, she said.

As well as being better for the environment, recycling could save the auto industry waste disposal costs, Sawyer-Beaulieu said. She hopes her research can be used to show there is a market for salvaged and recycled auto parts, possibly creating new jobs.

“In Europe it’s legislated how much must be recovered,” she said. “In Canada it’s still a market driven system. The industry doesn’t want to be legislated because it could effect the way they do business. My research is to see how they can recover more to prevent that from being sent to landfills.”

For example, as vehicles become more computerized ways should be found to fully recover the electronics and circuit boards, Sawyer-Beaulieu said.

Steel, other ferrous and non-ferrous metals, foam, plastics, glass, residual oils and fluids, fabrics and rubber call all be extracted from discarded vehicles.

Parts that can be salvaged are refurbished and sold as replacements to consumers looking for inexpensive repairs, Sawyer Beaulieu’s research shows. She said newer cars, even those involved in major collisions, are valued more for their up-to-date components than vehicles 15 years or older.

The exceptions are older classic and collectible vehicles. Those parts are always in demand among enthusiasts stockpiling for their next reclamation project, she said.

So perhaps there may be someone out there still saving a steering column, tail light assembly or engine part from Neil Young’s old Buick.

Susan Sawyer-Beaulieu, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Windsor is conducting research on the methods that scrap car parts are handled.
Photograph by: DAN JANISSE, The Windsor Star