OCTOBER 2009

Benefits of automotive reuse and recycling study disclosed

The world’s airliners could fly nearly 100 million miles with the energy saved each year by reusing steel fenders instead of manufacturing them new, says a new study prepared for the United Recyclers Group (URG) by the University of Colorado (CU). The study quantifies the benefits of automotive reuse and recycling by the nation’s automotive recycling industry. The study specifically looked at reusing some common parts such as fenders and aluminum wheels, along with the reprocessing of motor oil extracted from ‘end-of-life’ (EOL) vehicles.

End of Life vehicles are typically full of oil when they arrive at one of the automotive salvage facilities located across America for processing. The study estimates that over 24 million gallons of oil are extracted from EOL vehicles each year in the United States, under the strict regulatory oversight of federal, state and local environmental agencies and offices. Reprocessing motor oil is hugely beneficial to the environment, as compared to the process of exploring, drilling, and refining new oil. Over 3.1 million tons of CO2 emissions are saved in the process, an amount that could offset the entire CO2 output of the United States for 45 hours this year.

These statistics document the benefits and savings from just three part types from the vehicles that are taken out of service every year. The full benefit of recycling and reuse of the entire vehicle will provide much greater savings and environmental benefits than this preliminary study has revealed. An executive summary of the CU study is available on the URG website.

According to Michelle Alexander, URG executive director, “The CU study estimates that nearly 11 million vehicles are taken off the road in America each year when they reach their so called ‘End of Life’ (EOL). This process of attrition is caused by accidents and also occurs as vehicles age. There are tremendous quantifiable environmental and financial benefits for consumers that are provided by the green American automobile recycling industry as these vehicles are processed both for the reuse of certain parts (known as ‘green parts’) and recycling of most of the remainder.”

Alexander said that “Thanks to our auto recycling industry, the brakes are being tapped on climate change, energy consumption is being reduced, less material is being mined, refined and used, many forms of pollution are lowered and the carbon footprint for the whole auto industry is being reduced.”

The study was launched when Alexander contacted Dr. Angela Bielefeldt, PE, an award-winning professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU). The study was completed by a team of senior environmental engineering students comprised of Patrick Gere (lead), Tyler Sale, and Madeline Tyson.

John Fischl, president of Riteway Auto Parts, located in Phoenix, Arizona, and a URG manager said that “For a typical EOL vehicle, about 75 percent of the parts are salvaged for reuse, about 20 percent of the vehicle is recycled, and the remaining 5 percent is thrown away.” What that means, he added, is that an “EOL vehicle is one of the greenest products on the planet. Through the reuse of ‘green parts,’ vehicles may partly live on for years and years, at great environmental benefit to Planet Earth and important financial benefit to the consumer driving a vehicle needing repair parts.”

Some highlights of the study’s major findings include the following:

  • The recycling of steel fenders each year in the United States saves the mining of over 5 million tons of iron ore, nearly 3 million tons of coal, and over 250,000 tons of limestone as compared to the manufacture of an equivalent number of new steel fenders.
  • The smelting of aluminum is very energy intensive, so it is no surprise that even more spectacular are the savings associated with the recycling of aluminum wheels. The study estimates that over 1.71 billion kilowatt hours of energy are saved annually when the aluminum needed to make enough wheel sets isn’t mined, isn’t smelted, and isn’t manufactured. The energy savings from not having to manufacture aluminum wheels alone would be enough to power Chattanooga, Tennessee or Panama City, Florida for an entire year.