Science of the City: The afterlife of auto parts
BY PAUL RUFFINS
The evolution of cars and their impact on the environment has been paradoxical. Over the past two decades, engines have become much more efficient. But gas mileage and carbon dioxide emissions have plateaued because U.S. consumers have favored SUVs and pickup trucks, which are larger, heavier and less aerodynamic than sedans.
There’s good news, though: “Automobiles have the highest recycling rate of any consumer product,” noted Greg Condon, president of the Maryland Association of Car and Truck Recyclers. “Approximately 80% of a car is recyclable, and an extremely high percentage of cars are ultimately reused.” Condon is also president of Condon’s Auto Parts in Westminster.
Hyattsville is a prime hub of the automotive afterlife. The city hasn’t had a new car dealership since Lustine Chevrolet, on Baltimore Avenue, closed. However, Route 1 and Kenilworth Avenue are home to dozens of used car lots, garages and body shops. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce website lists at least six chain auto parts stores nearby, such as AutoZone, NAPA and Advance Auto Parts. Then there’s Beltway Used Auto Parts and Andy’s Auto Parts, in Bladensburg. “The term junkyard is obsolete,” says Beltway’s president, Tim Higgins. “We’ve evolved into a sophisticated recycling industry that follows strict recycling procedures and supplies high-quality green auto parts.”
Why are cars and their parts constantly being reused and recycled while landfills are filling up with clothing, furniture and appliances, which are cheaper to replace than repair?
The first reason is the basic materials. By weight, cars are about 75% steel which is actively traded worldwide. According to the Automobile Recycling Association (ARA), making new steel from old steel requires about 75% less energy than refining steel from iron ore. By contrast, shipping, sorting and remelting glass bottles takes more energy than making new ones. And most used plastic is almost worthless unless it’s very carefully sorted.
According to Andy Cohen of Andy’s Auto Parts, good scrap steel is currently selling for about 11 cents a pound. So, a completely wrecked 1990 Toyota Camry is worth about $210 for its steel alone. But steel is the least valuable metal in a car. There’s also some aluminum, which sells for $1,000 a ton, and about a mile of wire containing about 50 pounds of copper, which can sell for over $6,000 a ton. The catalytic converter alone is worth at least $300 because it contains several grams of platinum ($1,100 an ounce), as well as palladium and rhodium. (However, most scrap yards, including century-old Joseph Smith & Sons, on Kenilworth Avenue, will only buy wrecks that have been depolluted, which, at minimum, involves removing the battery and tires, and punching a large hole in the gas tank.)
But car parts are worth more than car scraps due to the revolution in automotive quality after super-reliable Japanese imports ended American carmakers’ culture of built-in obsolescence. In the 1970s and ’80s, American engines and transmissions often became unreliable after 60,000 or 70,000 miles, so used cars and their parts weren’t worth much. The marketing firm Hedges & Company analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and concluded that in 1995 (the earliest year this data became available), the average age of a vehicle was 8.4 years. In 2023, it’s projected to be 12.3. The average person drives about 14,000 miles a year, so 12-year-old family commuter cars with 150,000 miles are pretty common, and 20-year-old Hondas and Toyotas with 200,000+ miles aren’t unusual.
Nevertheless, even the most reliable cars have some parts that wear out before others, creating a huge demand for spare parts to keep them running. Let’s consider a 2012 Sonata that needs a new starter. Your options might hinge on how quickly you need to have your car back on the road and how fat your wallet is. College Park Hyundai has new starters in stock for about $389. Purchase one online from another Hyundai dealer, and it might set you back $266 — but take three days to get to you.
Or you could head to the College Park NAPA Auto Parts store on Berwyn Road and pick up a rebuilt starter for $148.99 plus a $38.50 core charge; bring your old starter back to NAPA for recycling, and they’ll refund the extra charge. The starters (and other parts, like alternators and water pumps) on the shelves at chain stores like NAPA, AutoZone, Pep Boys and NTB are usually remanufactured, which means they have been restored to like-new quality.
Then there’s your local green parts recycler, such as Andy’s Auto Parts, which is an ARA member. Andy just might have the right starter in a wrecked car on his lot, and he might even be able to pull out in an hour. He recently had just the part for that Sonata and would have sold it to me for $50 with a 60-day guarantee.
“Many environmentalists believe that businesses should take back and reuse almost everything they sell,” says Sandy Blalock, ARA’s executive director. “Well, about 25% of the steel in new cars has been recycled, and many of the old starters and alternators that our members can’t use become cores that are re-manufactured for the auto parts chains. We’re leading the world in reducing prices and pollution by reusing and recycling.”
Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.