Carmen Adams


Gatorade bottles. Newspapers. Spaghetti sauce jars. We all know that recycling is good for the environment, and many people have gotten used to rinsing out cans and bottles and dragging them to the street in their green recycling containers. Even banana peels and coffee grounds are making it to composting piles in American homes. But for as much recycling work that we think we are doing, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that just about 35 percent of Americans recycle. If we are going to save this planet we are going to have to think bigger. Have you ever considered recycling an entire automobile?  Just based on size and materials alone, automotive recycling can go a long way in saving natural resources and our planet.

Why Automobiles?

With the plethora of public service announcements and school campaigns about the benefits of recycling, the concept of keeping materials out of landfills continues to infiltrate the minds of Americans. And the message is reaching beyond Coke cans and peanut butter jars to items that have an even bigger impact. According to the Auto Alliance, ¨86 percent of a vehicle’s material content is recycled, reused or used for energy recovery.¨ Considering the sheer size of an automobile versus other recyclable products,  recycling your automobile is a great way to strive for sustainability. And this idea is catching on. Wheels for Wishes explains that more than 25 million tons of material are recycled from cars each year, including 90 percent of all of the automotive aluminum on a recycled car. This aluminum can be used to make a variety of new products, and is also an integral component in the new car industry.

Auto recyclers are changing the way we deal with defunct cars, and now supply more than one-third of iron and steel scrap to the scrap processing industry in the United States. The idea of going beyond cans and cardboard recycling is catching on: according to recycling stats from SellMax, 12 million cars are recycled yearly in America.

Saving Natural Resources

There are many reasons why automobile recycling is good for the earth and for economics. It is no secret that we are using the world’s resources at an unsustainable and alarming rate. Global Citizen reports that the world would actually need 1.75 earths to keep up with our established rate of consumption of natural resources. One huge benefit of automobile recycling is the use of scrap metal instead of mining for new fossil fuels. The ARA reports that for every ton of steel created from scrap, 2,500 pounds of iron ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone extraction are saved.

Reducing Air and Water Pollution

Conserving our natural resources goes hand in hand with reducing emissions and pollution in making new products, as well as mitigating the effects of car parts thrown in landfills. In addition to conserving fossil fuels in the creation of steel, the EPA reports that 25 percent of automobiles are made up of tires, fluids, and other materials. The disposal of these materials can cause great harm to the environment. Recycling My Battery explains that ¨Every year, an estimated 1.8 million used batteries are not responsibly recycled. When a lead-acid battery is not properly recycled, lead, acid and mercury can be deposited into lakes, streams and landfills.¨  Mercury in anti-lock brakes, lead in wheel weights, and gasoline can all negatively impact the environment if not recycled properly. According to the EPA, even with all the recycling efforts, about one-quarter of all tires end up in landfills. They can bubble up to the surface, destroying the liners in the landfill, and also become a breeding ground for mosquitos when water gets trapped in them. Proper automobile recycling reverses the negative effects.

Reducing Energy Use in the Industry

Recycling automobiles also promotes sustainability by saving energy that would be used to create new materials. Wheels For Wishes reports that the steel industry saves enough energy each year, through recycling, to power more than 18 million households for a year. This energy savings has a profound positive effect on our planet. And according to the EPA, recycling steel uses 74 percent less energy than making brand-new steel. These facts show how important auto recycling is for the planet and continued industrialization.

Uses for Parts

Although the proud owner of a Porsche or Delorean might disagree, breaking a car down into its primary parts can offer a variety of recycling and upcycling opportunities. Old tires can become planters, tables, playground surfaces, shoes or workout equipment. Metals can become ductwork, appliances, food packaging, art, and lighting fixtures. In addition to industrial uses for car manufacturers and other corporations, websites like Etsy and Pinterest are laden with ideas for private citizens to upcycle car parts, from imaginative uses for bed headboards and footboards, to creative metalwork for walls.


In any discussion for American consumers, the bottom line is money. I asked the San Diego office of SellMaxa car scrapping company about the business end of car recycling, and they explained that ¨The car recycling Industry is the 16th largest in the United States, contributing $25 billion per year to the national GDP.¨ Car manufacturers such as Toyota, Nissan, and Ford are researching the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of continued automobile recycling efforts, in an effort to improve existing protocol.

According to Wheels for Wishes, ¨The total estimated revenue of automobile recycling is estimated to be about $22 billion. Recycled vehicles provide enough steel to produce almost 13 million new vehicles every year and can save money, time, and precious resources.  Additionally, The Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Energy asserts that automotive companies are even more interested in using recycled materials due to scrap production forecasts and refining techniques. Industry estimates indicate that aluminum use in vehicles will increase by more than 40% by 2028. And Argonne National Laboratories reports that 75% of car components, chiefly the metals, are able to be recycled for a profit.


The sky’s the limit for innovation in car recycling. And if we want to keep our skies clear of pollution and toxic emissions, recycling automobiles today is the answer. The industry continues to push standards of sustainability, practicality, and value in its quest to refine automotive recycling.

Carmen Adams is a master’s student at San Diego State University. She has been fond of bettering the environment since a young age. When she’s not studying you can find her volunteering at the Surfrider Foundation in San Diego.