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The Science of the City: When it comes to cars, parts are greater than the whole

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Posted on: February 9, 2023

By Paul Ruffins

The signs are all along the Route 1 corridor: “We pay up to $700 for unwanted cars, vans, trucks towed free” and “We buy all used cars $150-$600.” The posted offers are loosely based on world-wide commodity prices, and the size and condition of the car. A car is a storehouse of hazardous materials — gasoline, oil, brake fluid, AC refrigerant, antifreeze, asbestos and more. Cars built after 1999 have at least two highly explosive airbag inflators, too. Despite these hazards, someone will pay at least $150 for the opportunity to tow one away. 

A sign in College Park offering cash for cars.
Credit: Paul Ruffins

“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, Md.

Auto parts seem to defy the law of the conservation of matter, which states that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. When it comes to automobiles, the parts can add up to more than the whole.

There is an ongoing conflict between car manufacturers, who would like to have a monopoly on replacement parts, and independent mechanics and insurance companies, who have to pay for them. Dealerships charge very high markups. A 1999 study commissioned by the Alliance of American Insurers found that assembling a car that would have been worth $25,000 on a new-car lot using individual parts purchased from a dealership would have cost $100,000. And that was almost 25 years ago; imagine what it would cost now. Car companies claim, though, that remanufactured and recycled parts are inferior. 

This is why scrounging for parts from a wreck can be so lucrative, Condon said, “if I paid $1500 for a 2012 Toyota Camry with 145K miles and a body in good condition, but a bad transmission, I would aim to sell the parts for $4-$5,000. The most expensive vehicle I ever bought was a luxury SUV, a 2018 Yukon Denali with 60,000 miles, which had been totaled in a collision. I paid $14,000, because I could sell the engine alone for $7,000.”   

Condon’s company is a member of the Automotive Recyclers Association, (ARA) which supplies premium green parts — used original parts that have been tested and are guaranteed for at least six months (lifetime warranties are available on some used parts). Condon bought the Denali at an insurance auction; he likely could have retrieved its complete maintenance records from Carfax.

It may make sense to invest $7,000 in a late-model luxury SUV that’s still in good shape. But why would anyone pay even $150 for a rusty 1990 Camry with 300,000 miles and a blown engine? There’s a good reason: Scrap cars can fetch a good price. And while prices do fluctuate, the  scrap metal valuation site iScrapapp.com lists the average price for scrap steel in the DMV at $158 per ton this month. 

Most scrap yards, including century-old Joseph Smith & Sons, on Kenilworth Avenue in Capitol Heights, will only buy wrecks that have been depolluted. At minimum, the depolluting process involves removing the battery and tires, and punching a large hole in the gas tank. A thoroughly depolluted wreck has had all fluids drained, and the gas tank and airbag inflators removed. Removing all fluids and specific parts keeps Smith’s giant shredder from bursting into flames and produces scrap that can be safely exported around the world.

A depolluted Camry would probably be worth $150 for its steel alone. Some parts of an old wrecked car, such as the seats, are usually worthless, but almost everything else can hold some degree of value. That Camry has at least a dozen electric motors and about a mile of wiring — that amounts to about 50 pounds of copper. Bare copper wire sells for  more than $3 a pound these days — more than $6,000 per ton as scrap. Scrap aluminum goes for about $1,000 per ton. And any car manufactured in the U.S. since 1975 has a stainless steel catalytic converter that’s loaded with extremely expensive materials, including platinum, palladium and rhodium. That Camry’s converter is worth at least $180.  

So what choices do you have on the table for your 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 priced at 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 NAPA 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 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 in Bladensburg, which is an  ARA member. Andy just might have the right starter  in a wrecked car on his lot that he might even be able to pull out in a half hour.  He recently had just the part for that Sonata and would have sold it to me for $50, and with a 60-day guarantee. 

So, which part might end up in your Sonata? If you’re not replacing the starter yourself, you’ll likely have to rely on your mechanic to figure that out — just hope you’re working with an honest one who will do some research, find a good part at a reasonable price and give you a 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.”

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