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Car Salvaging: Learn Which Car Parts Can Be Recycled

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Cars are incredibly complex machines, built from a wide variety of materials. Once they reach the end of their lifespans, they are often referred to as end of life vehicles (ELV). Many materials within a car can, and in fact should, be recycled. Each part has to be dismantled, stored and recycled in a different manner. This article will provide you with an overview of the vehicle recycling process, give you a list of recyclable automotive parts, as well as the proper methods of their disposal.

The Recycling Process and Regulations

Photo by IFCAR on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.
Photo by IFCAR on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.

Currently, there are no unified regulations about vehicle recycling procedures by the Federal Government in the United States, though there are initiatives surrounding the recycling of mercury switches and tires. The initiatives all work hard on making the salvaging and recycling process as clean as possible, and they have been successful in implementing several regulations that make the whole process cleaner.

When a car is brought to a scrapyard, it goes through four recycling steps:

  • Dismantling – the fluids and reusable parts are removed. These include batteries, wheels and tires, steering columns, fenders, radios, engines, starters, transmissions, alternators, select plastic parts and components, glass, foams, catalytic convertors, and other components, based on aftermarket demand.
  • Crushing – after all the reusable parts were removed, the vehicle is crushed to a more manageable size before being sent to the shredder
  • Shredding – the shredder tears the crushed vehicle into fist-sized pieces
  • Resource Recovery – the shredded materials are separated into ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and general residue. This residue, referred to as Auto Shredder Residue or ASR, includes plastics, rubber, wood, paper, fabric, glass, sand and dirt. These materials comprise on average 20% of the vehicle and they can’t be recycled.

Car Fluids

Every car has a number of fluids that are vital to the proper functioning of the vehicle. Gasoline, engine oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, and coolant are all relatively easy to check, top off or replace. They are, however, hazardous to the environment, and must be drained from the vehicle before it can be dismantled. Some of these fluids are flammable as well, which can be very dangerous in the recycling process or if the fluids are stored or transported improperly.

Many car parts stores and dealerships will accept old fluids to recycle and re-use them, but they must be transported in proper conditions. If there are no shops nearby that will accept the fluids, check for hazardous waste facilities, as they will also accept them.


Car batteries see a very high rate of recycling in the United States; at 98-99%, they are the most recycled product in the U.S. Most are returned to the dealership or shop where the new battery is being purchased, and scrap yards are also capable of recycling them. Due to the lead and acid present in car batteries, they must be recycled in specialized facilities, and can be dangerous if not disposed of properly.

Wheels and Tires

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.
Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

When a vehicle reaches its end of life and goes through the salvaging process, the wheels and tires will be removed before crushing. Each has its own recycling path.

Tires can often be seen in another role, most often as swings, targets, art or even planters. Another course of action is to recycle them, as long-term exposure to the elements leads to their breakdown, which could harm the environment.

Tires that are brought into recycling facilities are broken down and refashioned into a wide variety of products. The rubber can be melted down and reformed into caster wheels, lawn mower wheels, or recycled into rubber bands, automotive belts or asphalt ingredient. The tires can also be ground into fine granules that are included below artificial turf or playgrounds.

Car wheels themselves can be recycled as well. Owners can sell them to junkyards, dispose of them at a scrapyards or take them to an automotive store or dealership that will reuse them. In most cases, however, wheels are melted down as scrap metal with other metal automotive components.

Plastic Car Parts

The plastic components of old cars need to be separated during the shredding process, or removed beforehand and taken to recycling facilities. These parts include dashboards, lights, bumpers, and gas tanks, among others. They are melted down and reformed into new plastic products. If any of these parts are re-usable, they can be sold to the local auto repair shops or car owners interested in acquiring them.

Mercury Switches

In recent years, regulations have been passed to ensure that mercury switches are removed from vehicles before they go through the shredding process. Mercury switches are small switches that open and close electrical circuits, and they do so through a small amount of mercury within them. In cars, they were often used for lighting, especially the trunk light controls, but they were also used in anti-lock braking systems. Their use has been discontinued in new cars since 2003.

Mercury is a dangerous substance that has negative impacts on the environment.

It is detrimental to water quality and dangerous humans, animals and vegetation.

A coalition of federal, state, industry and environmental non-profit partners founded The National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program (NVMSRP) in 2006. The program is a voluntary effort to aid in collection and safe removal of mercury switches before vehicles are shredded.

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.
Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Every old car that is no longer being driven is a goldmine of recyclable materials. Many parts, such as engine, suspension, driveline and interior pieces, can be used to repair other vehicles of the same model that are still on the road.

Do you have any experience with recycling car parts? Let us know in the comments below.

Making sure your vehicle is recycled properly will provide long-term benefits to the environment. It’s a good idea to look into the recycling methods at the yard to which you are planning on taking your old vehicle, to ensure they take the proper precautions.