Old vehicles never die, they simply get recycled and come back as new ones. Or at least most of the metal in them does. In a world awash with plastic waste and other modern chemicals and materials, recycling cars at the end of their life has never been more important.
So how is Australia performing on that front? Not as well as it could be is the simple answer.
Modern vehicles are a challenge for recyclers. They’re full of steel, plastics, aluminium and exotic metals like palladium, platinum, zinc and cobalt. Then there’s glass, carbon fibre and rubber to add to the mix.
Separating it all and getting it into a recycling stream is quite a challenge. The Auto Parts Recyclers Association of Australia (APRAA) calculates that about 100,000 tonnes of waste is generated each year.
Steel is the easiest thing to recycle, and it can be recycled time and again indefinitely, saving energy, materials and carbon emissions. So by weight, at least, most of a vehicle is recycled at the end of its life. In Australia, a lot of the rest has been ending up in landfill.
The waste can include oil, petrol, coolant, brake fluids, hexavalent chromium, mercury and other harmful products. It’s not just dangerous, it’s a waste of resources.
Across the world countries are moving to depolluting vehicles – removing dangerous pollutants before the remains are shredded. South Korea has a plant converting shredded waste into energy.
Australia is some way behind and as far back as 2014 APRAA called on the government to make depollution mandatory.
But a small step in the right direction was taken in 2017, when a certification process was introduced to Australian and New Zealand automotive recyclers for them to meet safe working practices, environmental compliance and auditing.
Vehicle manufacturers around the world are moving towards circular production, where vehicles at the end of their life are deconstructed and the materials recovered, separated and transformed into new components.
Reducing their environmental impact is now important to them, because manufacturing vehicles can use a lot of energy, materials and water.
Veolia, a company specialising in water, waste and energy management, believes it can recycle as much as 97% of a vehicle – its metal, glass, plastic and textiles – at the end of its useful life.
That’s the gold standard for vehicle recycling at a time when vehicles at the end of their life should be seen not as waste, but as a resource.