Most of us are familiar with recycling of one form or another. Most communities routinely collect newspaper, glass, aluminum, and some plastics. This effort has saved millions of dollars in waste disposal. What you may not be so familar with is the efforts to recycle motor vehicles and the fluids and gasses within them. The biggest environmental hazards generated by salvage vehicles are oil, freon, antifreeze and fuel. Vehicles generate some of the worst environmental hazards, both because of the sheer volumn generated and by the damage caused by illegal and careless disposal.
If the vehicle has air conditioning (and most vehicles do) the freon used to run the system is probably the worst hazard. It falls into the category of chloroflorocarbons, the same stuff that used to be routinely used as a propellant in aerosol cans and a refrigerant in refrigerators and freezers. If this freon is just permitted to escape into the atmosphere, it rises to the ozone layer where it begins a chemical process that results in the break down the ozone molecules. It is the ozone that protects us from the harmful ultraviolet radiation of the Sun. Scientists have already monitored holes in the ozone layer, and have predicted that rates of skin cancer to also rise over the next decade.
Oil is the next big problem, depending on the size of the vehicle, it can hold from 4 to 8 quarts of oil. If this is allowed to spill, or is just dumped, it will leech into the ground where it will pollute both the soil, and nearby water when it is washed into a stream.
There is also antifreeze and gasoline or diesel fuel to be disposed of. All are deadly pollutants. Old time junkyards (and you can still find a few) often used to just dump the stuff. What they mainly wanted was the scrap metal from the cars themselves. How has the automobile salvage business changed and how do most salvage yards deal with the disposal of a vehicle?
To find out I visited Mt. Vernon Enterprises in Gap Pa. It was a family owned and operated business that had been there for about 12 years. Looking out into the yard where the cars and trucks were kept was a real surprise. There were no oil spills, it was neat and clean. A few sheep kept the grass down that couldn’t be reached by mower. When a vehicle was acquired it was "processed." This meant it was brought into a building where it was checked for resellable parts. The engine and transmission were checked for condition. If they could not be resold to be put into another car, they were removed and sold as "cores" to a business that rebuilt them. The fluids were drained out and put into containers. Oil was put into a tank and when full, was picked up by a recycling company. Freon was pumped out of the system and placed in bottles for pickup and recycling. Antifreeze was drained, then filtered and checked for efficiency (it is best if it protects to - 20 deg F) and put into containers and resold. Gasoline was removed and used in the various tow trucks and other vehicles used in the business. Tires were either resold as used tires (and you can get quite a bargain) or they too were picked up by a tire recycler who shreds them for use in road beds and other uses. Anything that can be resold is, and again, you can get quite a bargain on used seats, radios, body parts and lots more. Finally, what remains of the vehicle (and in some cases, it is surprisingly little) is taken to a scrap dealer where it is crushed and resold to be recycled, perhaps to be used to make other cars.
It has become clear to us that we must take responsibility for our planet. We cannot continue to just dump our trash and carelessly dispose of things that can be recycled. The well known astronomer Carl Sagan once asked that if extraterrestrial beings came to Earth, and inquired as to the care of our planet, how would we respond, who speaks for Earth? The answer is we all do and must, each in our own way, work to make our planet a better place.