Do you believe in re-incarnation? For autos, it’s a fact of (after)life.
I had the opportunity to participate in an interesting and informative meeting last week on recycling “end-of-life vehicles” (ELVs). Hosted by Summerhill Impact, an environmental non-government organization, it included participation from the federal and provincial/territorial governments, universities, and the industries engaged in automobile recycling — automotive manufacturers, scrap recycling industries, and the Canadian steel industry. More on that role later.
I thought I’d write about automotive scrap recycling because not enough people understand how extensive and valuable it is. Without this important set of industries, ELV vehicles would remain land-consuming, unsightly hulks littering the countryside. Moreover, those hulks could contain various fluids, chemicals, and substances that can be environmentally harmful.
The ‘scrap recycling chain’ thus plays an important role in greatly reducing the environmental impact of ELVs. More can always be done — looking for better environmental management solutions was a goal of this week’s meetings — but there’s impressive progress already as evidenced by the speakers at the conference. This includes:
• vehicle design specifications that improve ultimate recyclability
• more careful dismantling to remove oils and other potential contaminants
• the reuse of auto parts such as mirrors and doors
• shredding of the remaining steel hulks and disposition of the steel, aluminum, plastics, and other components.
So what happens then? That’s where steel manufacturers play a really vital role. About two-thirds of ELV material content is steel. And we don’t look on it as steel ‘waste’. It is, in fact, an essential material input to steelmaking. There are two basic steelmaking processes (the “integrated” method, and the “electric arc” method), both of which use significant quantities of recycled steel. For the former process, it’s about 20 percent of the material content in making new or ‘virgin’ steel; for the latter, it is over 90 percent of the material ‘load’ for converting recycled steel into new steel products.
That’s why our industry is so proud of its recycling record. In Canada, we are responsible for recycling about 7-8 million tonnes of steel each year — roughly the equivalent of the steel in that many automobiles. Not all of our scrap comes from autos, but a large percentage does. Thus, we don’t think of end-of-life for automotive steel — the steel in automobiles and other products is infinitely recyclable.
As I reminded the participants at the conference, steel is the most recyclable and recycled material in the world. This is a tremendous environmental benefit, and it also makes scrap steel an important business in Canada. So the next time you drive past a scrap steel yard, you can be fairly certain that much of that steel will end up in useful products ranging from home appliances to the rebar, beams and pipes used in everyday infrastructure. Indeed, steel produced by remelting automotive steel could well reappear as autoparts in your next car!
As an industry association, we are also quite active in an earlier phase of the ELV process. Years ago, some automobiles were manufactured with mercury-containing switches, e.g. convenience lights. While these types of products were discontinued years ago, vehicles produced at that time are being recycled today. There is a responsible way to remove and manage those mercury-containing devices prior to recycling, which is why the CSPA and the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association are co-funding a mercury “SwitchOut” program. We’ll be writing more on that another time.
And for those of you who’ve always dreamed of owning a sporty two-seater or a luxury sedan, you can tell your friends that at least part of your car probably used to be one — a couple of lives ago.