Scrap yards use new high-tech methods to remove cars

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H. ismakes him angry the A wall in the offices of Charles Trent, a vehicle recycling company based in Poole on the south coast of Great Britain, is a black and white photograph from the 1920s. It shows rows of old jalopies piled high in the scrapyard. Marc Trent, grandson of Charlie and current boss of the company, smiles at the photo and says: “Those days are long gone.”

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It refers to a time when motorists usually had little mechanical knowledge and used scrap yards as sources of spare parts when their cars broke down. Buyers, spanners in hand, would find a donor car, negotiate a price, and then remove the necessary part themselves.

Today the customers are more likely to be professional mechanics and garages buying online. The parts they find are removed, cleaned, tested and often guaranteed. So often they are not sent away overnight. It’s all part of the transformation of what was once a messy and informal industry. Tougher regulations, supply chain snarls and higher prices for both cars and components mean companies like Charles Trent – and even some big carmakers – are turning to sophisticated recycling operations.

At its Poole facility, for example, Charles Trent has invested around £10m ($13m) to set up a “de-production” process for “end-of-life vehicles” (ELVs), as scrap vehicles are now called. When fully operational, the plant should be able to provide more than 100 ELVday into their constituent parts. With plans for a further five plants, the company aims to eventually dismantle 300,000 vehicles a year, around a fifth of the total number scrapped in Britain. In total, just over 96% by weight ELV they can either be reused or recycled, says Mr Trent.

To do that, the company will build something that looks like a modern car assembly line, but runs backwards. When ELV to arrive, it is assessed for parts that can be reused or renewed, and the details about it go into an elaborate computer system that monitors the entire process. The car is then contaminated, which means removing the wheels and removing fuel, oil and air gases.

The car is then loaded onto the line. Technicians, using much of the same equipment found in today’s car dealerships, routinely remove the panels, interiors, engines, gearboxes, and everything else that a different set of technicians had painstakingly scraped years before. Some are sent for recycling. Others are cleaned, tested and mounted for resale. The bare shell of the vehicle is fed into a crusher, before it is taken off to be melted down and used again.

Wear parts, such as engines and gearboxes, can be refurbished or even “remanufactured”, a more involved process designed to bring them back to the condition they were in when they were new. LKQ is a Chicago-based company that operates 170 sorting facilities in North America that process 700,000 ELVin the year. He estimates that remanufacturing uses about 15% as much energy, and produces about 30% as much carbon emissions, as making a new part from scratch.

A number of factors are driving the change. Car manufacturers need to take more responsibility for what happens to their products. (The European Union, for example, is considering stricter recycling targets.) Reusing parts helps cut manufacturing emissions.

Other pressures come from the market than the statute book. Rising prices for raw materials and parts make cost savings from second-hand components more attractive. According to eBay, an online marketplace, used car parts are up to 70% cheaper than new ones. (eBay uses a certification scheme, with approved sellers and money-back promises to reassure buyers.) Second-hand parts are often quicker to get hold of as well as cheaper, thanks to the supply chain problems that have plagued the auto industry since the covid-19 pandemic. Many insurance companies, which once avoided their use, now allow some recycled components, such as body panels, in repairs.

Car makers are getting in on the act too. It is owned by the Stellantis group (which also has the largest shareholder, Exor). The Economistthis year it converted a factory at its Mirafiori plant in Turin, Italy, into a center for remanufacturing and automotive components. The company’s brands include Chrysler, Peugeot and Fiat.

While a normal production line builds one type of car, a disproduction line has to deal with all types, says Loïc Bey-Rozet. Mr Bey-Rozet runs Indra Automobile Recycling, a French company jointly owned by Suez, the environmental services group, and Renault, the car manufacturer. It manages 380 independent recyclers in France, who between them deal with 600,000 ELVs last year. It also runs a showroom in Romorantin, in central France, which develops dismantling techniques for all types of vehicles. The company supplies “de-production” systems to recyclers around the world, including Charles Trent.

Going electric

One of the things the company is working on is how to deal with electric vehicles (EVs). These already require special treatment. Dangerous voltages can remain in the vehicle’s electronics, for example, even when their batteries are flat. If these batteries are damaged, they can catch fire or explode.

Meanwhile, the mechanical simplicity of electric cars, at least compared to internal combustion ones, means that the batteries are by far their most valuable component. Batteries are good for resale; damaged ones will be sent to experts who are setting up work to recover the useful materials they contain. Once the batteries are gone, however, there is very little juicy picking left for the recyclers.

Therefore, to try to capture more value from taking apart EVs, Indra hopes to find ways to replace damaged batteries. This is possible because often it is not the whole battery that has failed, but only one of the many smaller modules from which they are made up. Replacing the damaged part could give many more years of useful life to the rest of the old battery. Doing so, however, will require even greater technical skills and still more specialized technology. But if there is money in it, the broken kings will make it.

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