Hgoing forward the A wall in the offices of Charles Trent, a vehicle recycling company based in Poole on the south coast of Britain, is a black and white photograph from the 1920s. It shows rows of old jalpies piled high in the scrap yard. Marc Trent, Charles’ great-grandson and current manager of the firm, smiles at the photo and says: “those days are long gone.”
He is referring to a time when motorists were usually a bit mechanical and used scrap yards as spare parts stores when their cars broke down. Customers, who would be on hand, would search for a donor car, negotiate a price, and remove the necessary component themselves.
Today the customers who buy online are more likely to be professional mechanics and garages. The parts they find will be removed, cleaned, tested and often guaranteed. So often they don’t ship overnight. This is all part of the transformation of a once murky and informal business. Tighter rules, supply chain snarls and higher prices for cars and components mean firms like Charles Trent – and even some major carmakers – are building 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” (PRINCIPLEs), as scrap cars are now called. When fully operational, the plant should be able to supply more than 100 PRINCIPLEper day in their components. With plans for a further five factories, the firm aims to dismantle 300,000 vehicles a year, around a fifth of the total scrapped in Britain. In total, just over 96% by weight of the PRINCIPLE it can be reused or recycled, says Mr Trent.
To do that, the firm will build something that looks a lot like a modern car assembly line, but runs backwards. When the PRINCIPLE When it arrives, it is evaluated for parts that could be reused or refurbished, and the data goes into an elaborate computer system that oversees the entire process. The car is then “de-polluted”, which involves removing the wheels and draining fuel, oil and air-conditioning gases.
The vehicle is then loaded onto the line. Technicians use much the same equipment found in modern automobile plants, systematically the panels, interiors, engines, gearboxes, and everything else that had been painstakingly applied by a different set of technicians years earlier. Some are sent for recycling. Others are cleaned, tested and put up for resale. The bare shell of the vehicle is put into a crusher, before it goes off to be melted down and used again.
Worn parts, such as engines and gearboxes, can be restored or even “remanufactured”, a more involved process designed to return them to the condition they were in when they were new. LKQ is a Chicago-based firm that operates 170 dismantling plants in North America that process 700,000 PRINCIPLEin the year. He estimates that remanufacturing uses about 15% as much energy, and produces about 30% as much carbon emissions, and makes a new part from scratch.
A number of factors are driving the transformation. Motorists need to take more responsibility for what happens to their products. (The European Union, for example, is considering stricter recycling targets.) Reusing parts helps reduce manufacturing emissions.
Other pressures come from the market rather than the statute book. Rising prices for raw materials and parts make the 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 guarantees 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, once out of use, allow some recycled components, such as body panels, to make repairs.
Cars are also getting into the act. It is owned by the Stellantis group (whose largest shareholder, Exor, also has a stake in it The Economist‘ parent company) this year converted a factory at its Mirafiori complex in Turin, Italy, into a center for the restoration of components and cars. The company’s brands include Chrysler, Peugeot and Fiat.
While a typical production line builds one type of car, a de-production line must deal with all types, says Loïc Bey-Rozet. Mr Bey-Rozet runs Indra Automobile Recycling, a French firm jointly owned by Suez, an environmental services group, and Renault, a car maker. It manages 380 independent recyclers in France, and between them deal with 600,000 PRINCIPLEs last year. It also runs a demonstration plant in Romorantin, in central France, which develops disassembly techniques for all types of vehicles. The company supplies “recycling” systems to recyclers around the world, including Charles Trent.
One of the things the firm is working on is how to deal with electric vehicles (EVs). These already require special handling. Dangerous voltages can remain in vehicle electronics, for example, even when their batteries are flat. If these batteries are damaged, they may catch fire or explode.
At the same time, the mechanical simplicity of electric cars, at least compared to internal combustion ones, means that the batteries have long been their most valuable parts. Good batteries are resold; damaged ones are sent to specialists who are setting up operations to recover the useful materials they contain. Once the batteries are gone, however, there are few viable options left for recyclers.
So to try to capture more value from dismantling EVs, Indra hopes to find ways to restore damaged batteries instead. This is possible because often it is not the entire battery that fails, but one of the smaller modules that they are made of. The damaged part could be replaced with many more years of useful life. To do so, however, will require greater technical skills and even more specialized technology. But if there is money, the kings will waste it. ■