If your car ever fails an MOT and costs too much to fix, or is just broken and isn’t worth repairing, here’s what can happen next.
The official name for a scrap car is End of Life Vehicle (ELV). To avoid the potential environmental disaster which these millions of ELVs pose across Europe, the 2004 directive on end-of-life vehicles (ELV Directive) is set into EU law (so is followed by all carmakers who place cars on the market in the EU and UK).
From 2015, the directive said that the industry must ensure that 95% of each vehicle by weight is re-used, recovered or recycled. Despite the UK no longer being part of the EU, the directive continues to apply here.
These days the value of the raw materials, and spare parts they might yield, means they are in big demand. Rising used car prices and fewer cars being driven (and therefore crashed) during the pandemic has meant many cars which may have been due for dismantling are being repaired and kept on the road, hence the value of the ‘scrappers’ goes up. There a number of different firms competing to provide the best valuation to buy your scrap car.
The right way to dispose of a scrap car
The Vehicle Recycler’s Association (VRA) is the UK trade association for vehicle recyclers (vehicle dismantlers, salvage agents, scrap metal processors and associated companies). Members must comply with its requirements including a code of practice and have all legal requirements in place.
It warns people to be very wary of ‘any car for cash’ mobile phone numbers which come through the door or you find in your local paper. Many of them will be illegal operators, it says. Your car could be sold onto somebody else without the DVLA being told it is scrapped so it could be used to commit crimes or be sold overseas. You would still be liable for speeding fines, parking tickets or worse.
All members are authorised by the Environment Agency (SEPA in Scotland) as an End of Life Vehicle Authorised Treatment Facility (ATF) as is required by law. The ATF receiving your vehicle will issue you with a ‘Certificate of Destruction’ which ends your responsibility for the vehicle from its date of issue.
Always insist on a receipt and (unless you have agreed to the vehicle being sold on for re-use) a Certificate of Destruction. You’ll also need to notify DVLA that you’ve sold your car (or a dismantler may do this for you). If you have any road tax remaining, you’ll get an automatic road tax refund from DVLA.
CarTakeBack is the UK’s largest scrap car recycling network, acting for and advising over 300 scrap car recycling centres in the UK. This ranges from companies who remove every part of a car to those who remove the bare minimum and depollute the car as legally required to send on for recycling, plus metal recyclers.
The company offers an instant quote facility based on what its network is prepared to pay for vehicles. “The competition comes from the amount of money that the dismantlers can get from selling the shell and the scrap vehicle, and often – but not always – the parts,” says senior manager Ken Byng.
“Scrap prices have been really, really strong in the last few years for the most part, although it can be quite a volatile market because it’s dependent on world markets for raw materials.”
For now, it’s steel and aluminium but with Electric Vehicles (EVs) all that will change, he says. “At one time the engine transmission and catalytic converter were the big value items on a vehicle. But a lot of the operators are now realising the values of the lithium-ion batteries, the electric motors, the motor control units, and all of those sort of new components. There’s quite a thriving market for those at the moment.”
The second life of cars
Once a car is brought into a vehicle recycler, all fluids must be drained before any dismantling starts so they don’t seep into the soil. Engine and gearbox oil, brake fluid, coolants and windscreen washer fluid are drained and disposed of in environmentally appropriate ways – the washer fluid blend of water and chemicals can be purified using a process called reverse osmosis.
The traditional car battery (rather than an electric vehicle battery), is dissected into its various parts, such as lead, silver, plastic and acid. The valuable parts can be extracted for re-use, while the lead is melted down and acid neutralised.
Many parts are suitable for re-selling; for example lights, wheels, wing mirrors, interior parts and switches, headlamps and taillights, undamaged side windows and front and rear screens, plastic bumpers and even carpet mouldings. These are removed, cleaned, tested where needed and stored.
Currently it is legal for anyone to re-sell an EV battery, and a number of vehicle dismantlers and individuals do advertise them on sites such as eBay. How useable the batteries will be is another matter.
Generally, there’s a growing demand for so-called ‘green’ spare parts because they typically cost less than half the price of equivalent new parts. It also saves enormous amounts of energy in the manufacture and transport around the world of new replacement parts. For example, ASM Auto Recycling based in in Thame, Oxfordshire, handles around 30,0000 vehicles a year.
All re-sale parts are bar-coded and imaged for traceability and sold online or at an over-the counter shop. The company video shows hundreds of taillight units stored on racks. ASM says that it re-sells or re-cycles over 50,000 tyres a year – although you should always be very cautious about buying used tyres.
What can be recycled
ELVs are as much part of the ‘circular economy’ as recycled plastics, glass bottles and tin cans. Here’s how they can be broken down:
- Catalytic converters contain a range of highly-prized precious metals – including platinum, rhodium, and palladium – and are removed and recycled by a specialist.
- Traditional car batteries are easily recycled – lead can be infinitely smelted down and re-used – often as flat sheets for buildings.
- Relatively few electric vehicle batteries are reaching the end of their life but car makers are obliged to ensure those batteries are properly recycled. Most can have a second life as power storage but they need specialised handling.
- Electrical components and wiring contain copper, so this too can be separated and re-used.
- Most recent cars use major amounts of plastics for the dashboard, trim, bumpers and sometimes body panels. These are all marked by their plastic type at the manufacturing stage. Some can be melted down and reshaped into low-grade plastics such as pipes or garden furniture. Once shredded, washed and sorted, higher quality plastics can become laptop covers, mobile phone chargers and printers.
- Glass can be ground back down into sand but this depends where it comes from. Windscreens are formed of a plastic and glass sandwich so need careful separation.
- The fabric from seats can be recycled to be used for sound insulation for new cars or for some household fabrics and mattresses for example.
- Tyres are often used as the basis of a soft floor area in a children’s playground.
- If they can’t be broken down for parts, engines can be melted down and used to make new products. Most modern engines are aluminium, which recycles well as it does not deteriorate significantly when melted.
Stripped bodyshells are crushed and cubed before being sent to metal recyclers. After being shredded, metals are magnetically separated from any remaining recyclable materials – such as leftover plastic.
This can leave steel, iron, and aluminium shreds. Aluminium takes readily to being recycled, being converted back into flat sheets.
However, currently very little recycled steel is used to make new car bodyshells because it’s not considered of suitable quality, so more often used in the construction industry. This is called downcycling.
One carmaker looking to tackle this is Audi. Its MaterialLoop project is researching how to recover as much high quality material for use in new cars. As part of the project, 100 vehicles were disassembled last year for their larger quality plastic pieces.
The remaining car bodies were shredded and sorted into material groups comprising steel, aluminium, plastic, and glass. In an initial trial, six steel coils, made from about 12% secondary materials, were used to make up to 15,000 inner door parts for the Audi A4.