Copper in End-of-Life Vehicle Recycling
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Full Description:

In 2005, about 6.5 million automotive vehicles were retired from use in the United States;about 95% of these entered the recycling process (Ward’s, 2006). It is further estimated that at least 84% of the vehicle’s material content is recycled1. These numbers show that recycling plays a significant role in the automotive industry. There are many stakeholders in the recycling of end-of-life vehicles (ELVs): Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) design vehicles for production and recycling; dismantlers remove components from ELVs and make parts available for reuse; and shredding companies separate the vehicle’s materials and forward it to those who process it into raw materials for new vehicles.

Copper can be found in many automotive components (such as wire harnesses, electronics, and motors) or as alloys in the aluminum of engine blocks or transmission housings. In 2005, the automotive industry in the United States used a total of 803 million pounds of copper for the production of 11.95 million motor vehicles. The way this copper is used in vehicles can be accurately traced (e.g., through the International Material Data System2). Nevertheless, it is relatively difficult to understand how the recycling of each individual copper-containing component is impacted by a recycling system that processes not only ELVs but other industrial and consumer goods, as well.

In addition, recycling processes vary by region, depending on regulations. In the United States, the main influences on ELV recycling are EPA regulations on water and air pollution and free market economics of the recycling industry. In contrast, the European market is mainly influenced by EU regulations that currently aim to achieve a 95% recovery and reuse rate of vehicles by 2015. This requires a manufacturer to search for solutions that might differ from those in the United States and from those in markets with different regulations.

The use of materials in vehicles also affects the recycling method. Recent efforts for light weighting, for example, resulted in a shift toward higher value materials, such as aluminum. Nevertheless, the current composition is still determined by vehicle designs from about 20 or more years ago, as the median age of a scrapped vehicle in the United States is estimated to be 16.9 years─according to the Department of Energy (DoE, 2006).

The following report describes the current state of the art in vehicle recycling by focusing on operations that affect the recycling of copper. For this purpose, selected dismantlers and shredding companies were visited and representatives from industry organizations were interviewed. Selected OEMs have also been interviewed to better understand the impact of regulations on their vehicle design and on their research focus.

Prepared for the Copper Development Association

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