Car recycling: find out what happens when your car is scrapped

Modern scrap yards don’t look much different to old ones. But they must recycle extensively. (Picture Honda)

Thankfully, we’re becoming more aware of the impact the things we make and use have on the environment. And that includes what we drive. Car recycling is now a vital part of the motoring process. Here’s what it involves and the lengths the industry takes to recycle your car.

Goodbye scrap yard

The old days of sending your car to the scrap yard where it spent years decaying are long gone. Now cars are no longer left leaking toxic fluids into the ground before being crushed into small cubes and put into landfill.

Hello Authorised Treatment Facility

Cars must now go to a registered ATF. There are around 2000 in the UK, each of which has been approved by the government’s Environment Agency. It’s now illegal to simply collect and store cars on patches of oily waste land. To get its permit, an ATF must have concrete surfaces and sealed drainage systems to prevent poisonous substances leaking into water courses.

car recycling
Scrap yards must properly recycle cars now (Picture iStock/PixelProf)

What the End of Life Vehicle Directive means

In the mid-1990s, the European Union decided to act against the 8-9 million tonnes of dead vehicles going into landfill every year. With the number of cars sold increasing, it realised the amount being thrown away was only going to increase.

The End of Life Vehicle Directive put the responsibility for vehicles that had come to the end of their life back in the hands of the manufacturer. It covers elements of how manufacturers build passenger cars and light commercial vehicles.

As a result, car makers can’t use certain toxic materials such as cadmium, lead and mercury in cars. And they must design motors to make it easier to recover, recycle and reuse components and materials.

Cars must also be taken to an ATF where they can be dismantled. The legislation dictates that from January 2015, 95 per cent of the vehicle must be recovered and reused.

How does car recycling happen?

By weight, cars are approximately 75 per cent metal, 25 per cent fluids, plastics, fabrics and rubber. The first thing an ATF does is to drain all of a car’s fluids and remove the battery and wheels. Some ATFs will remove and catalogue components that they sell as spare parts.

The most efficient ATFs use giant metal hammers to shred what’s left of the car. This process breaks it down into small pieces. These roll down a conveyor belt where strong magnets separate the ferrous metals. These make up about 70 per cent of the car’s weight. The ATFs sell steel for melting down and use on new products.

A vacuum separates the lighter materials such as foam, rubber and plastics for recycling. Previously scrap yards would have simply sent them to landfill.

The remaining metal and heavier plastics are then separated. Plastics make up about 10 per cent of our cars by weight. These used to go to landfill but they can now be broken down to their base chemicals and turned into pellets. Industries re-use these to make new products.

Make sure you get a Certificate of Destruction

When you hand your car over to an ATF, you should get a Certificate of Destruction (CoD). This means your car will never drive on the road again.

The CoD is a vital piece of paperwork. If you don’t have one for your car, you could still be liable for tax and penalties if the vehicle is involved in a traffic offence. An ATF must tell you if it decides it can repair and resell your vehicle.

If you scrap your vehicle in England and Wales, the scrap yard must not pay you in cash. It must pay you with a bank transfer. If the scrap yard tries to pay you in cash, it’s probably not an official centre and it is unlikely to dismantle your car for recycling.

4 comments on “Car recycling: find out what happens when your car is scrapped

  1. Andrew Wimshurst 18/11/2019 5:51 PM

    Very informative and reassuring. Thanks.

  2. colin rice 06/12/2019 5:41 PM

    Often wondered what happens to scrap cars, particularly the plastic parts. Now I know the process and its very reassuring. Thanks

  3. Jesse Ford 30/04/2020 9:47 PM

    I like how you mentioned that cars are 75 percent metal, 25 percent fluids, plastics, fabrics, and rubber. My brother is thinking of going to a car parts recycling service because he’s considering taking apart his vehicle and wants to dispose of the old parts, like a catalytic converter, properly. I think it’s a good idea for my brother to take scrap parts to a reputable location that can recycle the vehicle components properly.

  4. Richard Philo 16/02/2021 9:05 AM

    Happy to read this article. The only thing that would be a helpful addition would be to know the value of energy required to convert old petrol/ diesel vehicles into their component parts as compared to the same for electric vehicles. Can, for example, the new very large electric batteries in new cars be easily reused or decomposed into reusable components?

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