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Vehicle recycling is the opportunity to dismantle end of life vehicles (ELV), not only to collect reusable parts, but to most materials and composites to see a second life or be kept from landfills. Here we examine the process, benefits and views of vehicle recycling, and what its future holds. 

The process

Every recycler will have their own method when recycling a vehicle. Below, we have summarised the process of vehicle recycling most used, although the order of steps will be different for every organisation.

First, an ELV must come into a recycler’s possession. Some have a network of Authorised Treatment Facilities (ATFs), and offer services to the public, businesses, VMs, dealerships and repair centres. Others have contracts with numerous UK insurers and fleet companies. Most recyclers offer vehicle collection. Once at a licensed ATF, vehicles are photographed or videoed for a detailed record of the vehicle’s journey.

Tests are then commenced by qualified technicians to establish if the engine runs and which components of the vehicle are working. Some recyclers, such as Charles Trent, will digitally document and catalogue what is damaged on the vehicle and what parts can be reused or sold.

Next is depollution where potentially dangerous liquids are removed from the vehicle. e2e Total Loss Vehicle Management’s chief operating officer Neil Joslin said: “We safely dispose of the hazardous materials from the vehicle such as coolant, brake fluid, oils and air-conditioning gases which are harmful to the environment.” Depollution also eliminates any risk when storing and recycling the vehicle. The removed liquids can be filtered and resold onsite or collected by the appropriate recycler.

After depollution, the vehicle is dismantled for recyclable and reusable parts. Materials are separated into different types of metal, plastic, rubber and glass so that they can be collected for recycling or catalogued to be remanufactured and reused. Vehicle parts that are stripped are recorded on a parts inventory system ready to be tested for quality assurance.

The parts and materials collected from a vehicle is decided by what can be reused or sold and what can be recycled either by the recyclers themselves or what is determined by government regulations.

Describing the dismantling process for CarTakeBack, alliance manager Alison Price, said: “Appropriate testing of the parts takes place and where appropriate, reconditioning. The parts are then properly stored, packaged and catalogued to ensure they are able to be correctly and safely paired with the right vehicles when reused.” When available, collected and catalogued parts are visible across a company’s multiple sales platforms and can usually be purchased from there.

The rest of the vehicle, usually a body shell by this point, can be placed into a baler, crushed into a metal block and be sold and recycled into more vehicles and components. Or, the remains of the vehicle can be transported to a vehicle shredder, which shreds the vehicle into fist-sized chunks. Once they’re a more manageable size, the materials are separated into the different types of metal, plastic, rubber and glass.

By law 95% of a vehicle’s weight must be recycled, although most, including Charles Trent, are reaching above that at 96.2%. Although a very minute amount, not all vehicle’s materials and parts can be recycled or reused. “A very small proportion of the vehicle as a whole is ever classified as waste materials.

Typically carpets, seat covering and the foam behind the dashboard cannot currently be recycled and have to be treated as waste materials,” said Joslin.

Recycling benefits

In the words of Jason Cross, SYNETIQ’s director, “the environment is the standout winner” when assessing the benefits of recycling vehicles. It is estimated that if the UK increased its use of recycled vehicle components by just 10 per cent it could prevent 390 000 vehicle parts going to landfill each year – and save almost 190 000 tonnes in carbon emissions.

Recycling and reusing parts and materials from vehicles also keeps other parts from being manufactured, Joslin said: “The energy taken to recycle a part is a fraction of that taken to make a new part. There are immense savings to be made on using raw materials, supporting the drive for sustainability. The logistics of transporting parts, many from manufacturers abroad, adds to CO2 emissions and does not support insurers’ efforts to be carbon neutral.”

Industry view

Society’s desire to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious is obvious with the rise of paper straws, plastic-free restaurants and an uptake in recycling. Generally, the industry takes the same approach, so why are more vehicles not recycled? Andy Latham, managing director of Salvage Wire, said: “The industry supports vehicle recycling, however there is a major issue around illegal operators and the apparent lack of enforcement from government agencies, police and local authorities – this is not just a UK issue as illegal ELV operations are an issue across the globe.” Nick Rossiter, motor damage strategy manager, Allianz, described how the insurance industry has also changed with the eco-friendly movement. He said: “Vehicle repairability has been a significant focus for insurers for many years and manufacturers have been challenged to design vehicles with repairability in mind. “The driving force has previously been about repair cost, but now the focus is shifting specifically towards environmental issues such as, reducing energy usage or avoidable waste.”

The future

Like the rest of the industry, the future of vehicle recycling is focused on electric vehicles (EVs). Electric and hybrid vehicles are currently difficult for vehicle recyclers and dismantlers due to the potential hazards with the lithium-ion batteries, along with a range of components which will need thorough testing to ensure they are safe and appropriate for reuse. Companies like CarTakeBack, Salvage Wire and British Metals Recycling Association are combating these EV issues by running electric ELV awareness courses for the industry.

Others are focusing on the technology of vehicle recycling. Charles Trent, for example, is creating a reverse manufacturing centre for car recycling, including having its own vehicle production line, and parts storage. The dismantling of cars will be partly automated with machines separating the parts and conveyor belts moving the parts for recycling.

“Reduce, reuse, remanufacture, recycle – that’s the new order of things now when only a few years ago it was straight from reduce to recycle. This does not fit in 2020 and in no way will it fit as we move forwards,” said Trent when summing up the future of vehicle recycling. He added: “Standards of compliance are at an all-time high as SYNETIQ and the rest of the industry put safety, the environment, and social responsibility first.”