The Environmental Potential of the Auto Recycling Industry?!

The Study

A 2017 study completed by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and commissioned by the Auto Recyclers of Massachusetts (ARM) remains one of few studies that has attempted to quantify the amount of reduced carbon emissions that can be attributed to the auto recycling industry. Though the study was only focused on a small sample from Massachusetts, there is indisputable evidence to show that auto recyclers play an integral role in emissions reductions and their environmental potential is greater than previously understood.

The most striking finding of this study suggested that ARM members are responsible for reducing the state’s carbon footprint by 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide annually. The researchers’, four WPI seniors completing their degrees in mechanical engineering, assessment of the environmental impact of the auto recycling industry focused on three areas: the number of cars processed, the parts recovered, and the amount of hazardous material safely processed. 

The Environmental Potential

In order to compute the carbon emission savings from the number of cars processed by ARA members, researchers compared the amount of carbon (in tons) produced as by-product when producing a ton of metal, both from iron ore (new) and from scrap metals (ARM recycled). The difference between these two numbers represents the carbon savings per a single ton of recycled metal, assuming that one ton of recycled metal means that one ton of virgin metal no longer need be produced. This number was then adjusted to reflect the average annual volume of cars processed by each yard and then by the total number of ARM members, giving us a grand total of 2.2 million tons of CO2 in yearly reduction. The environmental potential of this industry is virtually limitless. 

The researchers’ focused on metal exclusively to arrive at this statistic, justified by the fact that most (~75%) of a vehicle’s total weight comes from metal components (primarily steel and aluminum) and so, “…the majority of the energy cost to produce the vehicle will be in the cost of metal manufacturing.” (Sidiq et al., 11). 

ARM members and recyclers are integral to getting the vehicle’s body to the point at which it can be crushed and the steel can be harvested. The automobile must have its hazardous materials (fluids, oil, battery), tires and wheels, unrecyclable parts (plastic bits including the gas can), and high-demand vehicle parts removed; this dismantling process fans out into a complex web of pathways that, evidenced by the researchers’ site visits, handle these materials abiding by environmental protocols set forth by state and federal guidelines.

Outsourcing to Metal Recyclers

It should be noted that the actual shredding, smelting, and casting process that addresses what remains of the vehicle’s now mostly metal body most often does not take place at the recycling facilities themselves. Rather, this work is outsourced to the scrap industry that specializes in steel or aluminum, otherwise known as metal recyclers. While distinct, the two industries have an important relationship as it relates to the full life cycle of a vehicle and moving it through the recycling process.

Moving Forward

The study was based on a small sample size, but for now it acts as a baseline for much of the carbon calculations that the SHIFT program does to assess its own impact. While it serves as a valuable resource to SHIFT it is important to understand the limitations of this study in determining carbon emissions and the steps forward from here. Future studies will need to be focused on emission reductions with a focus on engine retirement and the reuse of parts. 

SHIFT is exploring opportunities to collaborate with other academics and institutions to fill the gaps in research on the environmental potential of the auto recycling industry and its corollaries. We hope to encourage the expansion of the knowledge base of this industry and are taking an active role in advocating for further study.

Counting carbon is an extraordinarily difficult task but also a hugely important one. Just like with one’s personal finances, knowing where one stands in the present is key to creating the future that one aspires to create. 

The full study can be found here