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Media post: How do Junk Cars Get Recycled?

A car that doesn’t drive is a lot more than just a heap of scrap metal; in fact, it’s possible to get a lot of use from inoperable cars. Thanks to the meticulous recycling process employed by scrapyards, most parts of the average vehicle can be reused one way or another. Scrapyards definitely don’t have the kind of image that’s associated with the trendy “green” movement, but they still use the eco-friendly principles of “reduce, reuse, recycle” as their business model.

While today’s scrap yards recycle up to 85% of most vehicles, the same industry barely existed several decades ago. A combination of stricter environmental regulations and technological advances have enabled scrapyards to sell or repurpose the large majority of almost all vehicles. What does this mean for the consumer? Cleaner groundwater in certain areas, for one thing; on a more personal level, though, scrap yards pay cash for cars in virtually any condition.

How and why you can benefit from junk car recycling

Even though the pop-culture image of scrap yards features huge metal claws and massive magnets (and maybe a couple of gangsters), the fact is that scrap yards make most of their money from the vehicles well before the claws and magnets come into play.

Think about it this way: even if a car is wrecked beyond repair, there’s a good chance that many, if not most, of its components are still in good condition. This means that anyone who’s looking for a certain part for their own vehicle could reasonably expect to find it at a scrapyard, whether that part is a set of seats or a windshield wiper. As far as possible, scrapyards test the reclaimed parts for functionality; this won’t guarantee long-term functionality for something like a transmission, but if you’re talking about a car stereo, you can feel good about the purchase.

If you’re on the hunt for parts that are hard to find, such as components for old or rare cars, you might have to find a scrapyard that processes a high volume of cars; if you’re dealing with a smaller place, they’re unlikely to have the parts you’re looking for.

Whichever components you need, there are some that are a safe bet to buy used, and others that are a bit of a gamble. In some cases the main concern would be obvious damage (like with some headlight components), but the quality of other parts won’t be as obvious. Here’s a short list of used parts that tend to be reliable, provided they’ve been checked out by an expert:

  • Axles
  • Interior parts like seats, stereos, dash pads, or door panels
  • Headlight assemblies, reflectors, and tail light lenses
  • Brake parts like power boosters, rotors, or brake drums
  • Alternators and starters
  • Front-end parts like steering boxes, anti-sway bars, and control arms
  • Wheels and tires
  • Computers and various electrical components
  • Engines and transmissions

While choosing a used headlight assembly isn’t all that tricky, getting something like a used transmission should probably involve a second opinion from a trusted mechanic.

What about all the other steps of recycling junk cars? Let’s take a closer look at the process.


A car is mostly solid parts, but it also needs substances like gasoline, engine oil, and brake fluid in order to function smoothly. Once the car is getting recycled, though, all those fluids are just materials that need to be properly disposed of. This step is tightly regulated, since dumping large amounts of toxic fluids at the site of a scrapyard presents a huge risk for groundwater contamination.


This is where the scrapyard finds out just how valuable any particular vehicle will be. Sure, they’ll always be able to sell the parts for scrap metal, but the parts that still function can represent thousands of dollars in resale value per vehicle. Whether you’re looking under the hood or at the dashboard, there’s a lot of potential for second-hand car parts. It could be the engine itself, as well as the axles, seats, or stereo systems. A lot of mechanic shops have close business relationships with scrapyards; if a customer wants to save money on their car repair, or if they’re looking for parts that are no longer being manufactured, a scrapyard is an invaluable resource for those parts. Individual buyers sometimes go to scrapyards too, looking for parts to finish out their personal repair projects.

Crushing and shredding

This is the part that most people associate with scrapyards, where the shell of the car gets crushed by giant machines and turned into scrap metal. Once the process is completed, the entire vehicle will have been reduced to pieces the size of your hand. Most of the material will be aluminum and steel, which gets sold to manufacturers.

Resource recovery

The crushing and shredding process yields a lot of scrap metal, but it turns out other stuff too – specifically, “Auto Shredder Residue”, or auto-fluff. If it can’t be recycled and sold, it’s auto-fluff; this includes wood, dirt, paper, plastic, rubber, glass, and even toxic substances like cadmium and lead. About 15% to 20% of most cars are made up of ASR, and the current recycling process sends these parts to landfills. While it isn’t exactly ideal, new technologies are being developed that will even further reduce the percentage of old vehicles that end up in landfills.

Once the metals have been separated from the ASR, they’ll be sorted into non-ferrous and ferrous metals. Ironically enough, some of this scrap metal will go directly to auto manufacturers to be used for new car frames.

Sending to manufacturers

The last step is to send the processed scrap metal to various manufacturing plants. Since about 85% of the steel used in the U.S. is recycled from multiple sources (including junk cars), this significantly reduces emissions from mining and processing new steel.

Whether you’re looking for a specific part, or you’re trying to sell an old car, don’t forget about everything that scrapyards do; they may not be glamorous, but they’re definitely worthy of appreciation!

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