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From Grave to Green: The Fascinating World Behind Car Recycling

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog. Interested in writing something for the Blog Against Smog? Email our communications manager at

By Gabe Vargas

What happens when you choose car recycling? For one, the air suddenly becomes a little clearer. So you can breathe easier, knowing that a major step toward helping the planet could take so little effort on your part. With the proliferation of rail-trails and public transit, more people are already choosing healthier and greener alternatives for their daily commute. 

Recycling your rig is not only en vogue, it is friendly to the environment. And the auto-recycling industry is a fast-growing one. Besides, when else would you dump out 10,000 parts – all at once – where someone with the talent is just waiting to turn them back into a valuable commodity? 

To put it another way: The auto recycling industry is huge. Actually, it’s the 16th-largest industry in the nation. According to the Automotive Recycling Association (ARA), “the professional automotive recycling industry is a vibrant and thriving part of the automotive supply chain.”

Car Recycling: The Impact on the Environment & More

In the United States, automotive recycling businesses employ more than 140,000 people at more than 9,000 locations, representing over $32 billion in sales annually, the group noted on its website.

If you are reading this article, you care about the environment and want to know more. The enviro-bent to this story is a multi-layered win-win-win scenario for the industry, consumers, and the planet.

Why? For one, using recycled parts for auto repair and manufacturing saves up to 80 percent vs. buying new, not to mention the positive impact on landfills near and far. 

But that’s not the only way car recycling is earth-friendly: According to The Balance, the North American automotive recycling industry also saves around 85 million barrels of oil each year. 

And auto consumers? They gain the satisfaction of knowing they are taking at least one small step to help save the planet, while opening the door to valuable new recycled products. 

One Person’s Recycled Car is Another Person’s…

Not only do new cars come from old cars, but experts also estimate that 80 percent of automobile parts that can be recycled and are breathing life into:

  1. bicycles

  2. sandals

  3. furniture 

  4. bioplastic carpets

The American online resource for auto information,, details the greening-by-auto-recycling trend, including a hefty list of vehicles built with recycled and sustainable components. 

After all, purchasing a car or truck made with these parts is just as vital as scrapping one for parts at the end of the road. 

Chrome and glass are far from the only materials the scrap vehicle industry re-uses, and these metal alloys can be reused multiple times over:

  1. Copper

  2. Aluminum

  3. Plastics 

  4. Steel 

The Link Between Clean Air and Car Recycling

Automobile graveyards, junkyards, and landfills are stark reminders of the value that inoperable vehicles can have on the earth – once they are properly recycled. But how does that impact emissions?

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers points out that by using recycled metals, emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) – a potent greenhouse gas – are reduced in the manufacturing process. 

Given the approximately 12.6 million vehicles recycled each year by the automotive recycling industry, the group estimates that GHG emissions are reduced by more than 30 million metric tons per year. 

It’s also important to note that taking your old whip to a junkyard isn’t the only way to make sure it gets a second life. Consider donating your old vehicle to a charitable organization. Some organizations even have mechanics in place to fix up older autos. Did we mention you get a sweet tax deduction for donating to qualifying nonprofits?

About the Process

According to SellMax in Sacramento, the process of recycling trucks and cars is fairly straightforward and is a growing choice for green-minded entrepreneurs looking to start up a successful small business – about 20 percent of the pros in the industry are sole proprietors and sole employees. Getting cash for cars is a moving force for some consumers.   

In addition to the truths and stats outlined here, endless resources on the subject are at the fingertips of environmentally conscious consumers. Like this factoid – recycling metal uses about 74 percent less energy than making new steel – according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Dark Side of Auto Recycling

While recycling old vehicles has many benefits, the process, if handled improperly, could create pollution and disrupt communities. For instance, gasoline, oil, and other toxic chemicals are often found within old automobiles. It is critical to ensure that these harmful substances are properly removed so that they don’t potentially pollute the air and water of nearby communities.. The grassroots group Allegheny County Clean Air Now (ACCAN) has helped bring to light issues at Neville Island-based metal recycling company Metallico.

Members of the community voiced concerns regarding the periodic explosions coming from the facility. One resident told the Post-Gazette in 2019, “We get explosions, we get backward smoke and foul air that drifts over the river… and hear clanging in the middle of the night with barges being loaded with scrap metallic objects.” 

ACCAN recorded the facility for several years and has captured video of “image [shaking] and a bright burst[s] of flame [that] appears to come out of the shredder.” 

ACCAN’s experience may illustrate consequences that can stem from the car recycling process when it’s not done properly. 

Despite some bad actors in the industry, recycling vehicles can bring benefits to people across the world. With proper regulation and enforcement, we can ensure that no one is taken advantage of and that everyone benefits from a cleaner planet.

Gabe is a master’s student at UCSD who has been passionate about bettering the environment since a young age. A big inspiration to him is his mother who always taught him that we need to leave behind a clean planet. Gabe focuses on bringing to light ways to clean the earth that many individuals are not aware of. His goal is to spread awareness through his writing. During his free time, Gabe surfs and hikes the San Diego trails.

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