The Environmentally Responsible Way to Dispose of Your Clunker

Access to a vehicle is a vital part of the daily routine for many of us residing in the US. Now, more than ever, we must consider the negative effects vehicles have on our environment. After all, we hear about greenhouse gas emissions and global warming daily. Ideally, not possessing a vehicle is the most earth-friendly option. In addition to saving on costs associated with vehicles such as car payments, auto insurance, fuel, and maintenance, our environment is spared some harm in the form of various pollutants cars produce.

Many times, however, regular use of a vehicle is necessary due to local infrastructure. Unfortunately, mobile sources such as cars, buses, and trucks are our main sources of air pollution, per the National Park Service. These types of vehicles account for more than half of all the air pollution in the US. Not surprisingly, automobiles are the top producer of the group.


The salvage yard- a vehicle disposal option fit for some.

You’ve probably heard of auto salvage yards. These businesses purchase junk vehicles from owners who no longer want them. Some salvage yards dismantle the vehicles and sell the parts directly to customers. Others invite customers to come track down components they are seeking and remove parts themselves.

This can be a decent option. You can get a small sum of money in your pocket. That eyesore-of-a-vehicle that has been sitting in your driveway, leaking oil, and causing neighborhood curmudgeons great displeasure, can be hauled away. However, there happens to be an option superior to that of part salvaging.


The little-known yet most responsible way to dispose of an old vehicle:  Recycling.

I have to confess, this is quite the novel concept to me. You can actually recycle your vehicle in whole. Essentially, it can be stripped down, shredded, and reusable parts can be sorted and distributed. Cars rank number one, annually, when it comes to recycled products in the world. Interesting, huh?


Passenger vehicles are composed of a variety of recyclable materials.

Cars consist of a variety of materials that can be effectively recycled. SellMax a scrap car service in Oceanside, was kind enough to provide me with a material breakdown of the average passenger vehicle they acquire. Main materials are as follows:

  • ferrous metal- 68 percent
  • plastic- 9 percent
  • non-ferrous metals- 9 percent; glass- 3 percent
  • tires- 3 percent
  • fluids- 2 percent
  • rubber- 2 percent
  • electrical parts 1 percent

I had the pleasure of speaking to a local car recycler in Salt Lake City and they affirmed that steel and iron, the ‘ferrous metal’ category, are the prime components of a passenger vehicle. Steel mills purchase shredded ferrous materials from scrappers. Usually, about 90 percent of the steel and iron that a vehicle was composed of are recycled. The fascinating thing about steel is that it is 100 percent recyclable. Essentially, it can be recycled again and again without its quality being compromised.

Glass is another material that is 100 percent recyclable. It is one of the most sustainable materials on earth. Like steel, it can be melted down, repeatedly, without its quality being reduced.

Tires are another component that can be recycled and reused for many purposes, such as gravel substitute, playground flooring, and garden mulch, to name a few. Check out this article at for additional uses and more details. One caveat with recycling tires is that they’re a significant source of micro plastic pollution. The good news is that we are coming out with better ways to recycle tires often. For instance, Katherine Gallagher of Treehugger states, “As recently as 2020, a team of chemists at McMaster University discovered a way to break down the rubber used in car tires to turn them into new ones. This innovative method, which consists of dissolving the polymeric oils by separating the sulfur-to-sulfur bond in the tires, is a promising step for the future of recycling.”


Recycling car materials can be beneficial in even more ways than you’d think

The environment considerably benefits from recycling of a variety of materials that make up passenger vehicles. According to the EPA, recycling metal uses about 74 percent less energy than making new steel. Recycling of rubber tires reduces dumping of worn tires in landfills, lakes, and other undesirable locations, per Recycled Rubber Facts. More than 90 percent of tires are being recycled and reused each year. As a result, large amounts of energy are saved, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

The Automotive Recycler’s Association (ARA) has estimated that 24 million gallons of motor oil, 8 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, 8 million gallons of engine coolant, and 5 million gallons of windshield washer fluid are collected annually, resulting in a reduction of air and water pollution.

Another favorable aspect of vehicle recycling is the positive impact it has on our economy. Additional data produced by the ARA asserts that the auto recycling industry employs more than 140,000 US workers at more than 9,000 locations around the country.


The takeaway…

It’s probably safe to say that the statistics clearly support the argument that vehicle recycling is the best way to dispose of an old car. The future of our environment looks a bit more promising if we consider the fact that nearly 12 million cars are recycled in the US each year. We can each do our part. We can continue to reduce, reuse, and recycle. And when the time comes to retire our aged vehicles, we can choose the option to recycle knowing that we have chosen the most environmentally responsible option that will, in fact, make a difference.

You can support Recycle Utah while also recycling your old car by participating in our Donate Your Car program. We partner with a local car recycler, Tear-A-Part Auto, who responsibly reuses/recycles vehicle materials and provides Recycle Utah a cash donation for your vehicle. Visit Recycle Utah’s Donate Your Car page for more information on our program.


By Gabe Vargas

Bio: Gabe is a master’s student at UCSD who is always looking for ways to better the environment. He has a knack for taking complicated subjects and breaking them down into easily understood concepts. While not advocating for the environment he enjoys going on runs and surfing the San Diego Beaches.