Auto recycling 101 – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

NCL's ED Sally Greenberg visited the AAA auto recycling parts plant in , MN this week. NCL supports the recycling of auto parts for a number of reasons. Its important to recycle perfectly good parts that haven't been damaged in an accident as long as the parts are bought from a reputable recycler that provides warranties for parts and deals with reputable repair shops: 1) used parts save consumers money compared to paying for new parts 2) there may not be new parts available for certain older vehicles 3) its environmentally sound to recycle old parts and saves many millions of dollars each year, 4) ensuring continued consumers access to such parts requires that damaged autos be available at reasonable rates to recyclers for parts

I spent Monday of this week at AAA auto parts recyclers outside Minneapolis getting an up-close look at the business. I got to know the recyclers when I worked on auto safety issues at Consumers Union a few years back. It’s a very important industry and valuable to American consumers in a number of ways. First, recyclers save us money by dismantling cars that have been in serious crashes and preserving the intact parts – engines, window washing fixtures, fuse boxes, wheels – and making them available at lower cost than new parts. Second, they save millions of dollars because they reuse parts that would otherwise be shredded and go into our landfills, not to mention the millions it would take to make all those parts new again. They also drain out the fluids as they dismantle the cars, and see that they are properly disposed of – gas, oil, power steering and window washing fluids, to name a few. AAA actually uses the oil and gas from the cars to heat its plant, no mean feat in 25-below-zero Minnesota winters. The other fluids are kept out of landfills and waterways.

The best in the industry belong to the Automotive Recyclers Association, and which holds members to strict standards. They have requirements for customer satisfaction, best practices in dismantling parts, cleaning them up and making sure they are in working order before sending them out to auto repair shops, and they provide warranties on the parts they sell.

One of the growing problems facing recyclers, however, is access to cars that have been in serious crashes – known as “total loss” vehicles. The recyclers buy the crashed cars at auctions. However, they have competition from a rogue’s gallery of sleazy repair operators who will take a crumpled car and do a superficial repair, putting a dangerous vehicle back on the streets. And if that weren’t enough, recyclers then have to compete for these cars with criminals looking to buy these total loss vehicles simply to get the vehicle’s unique identification number (VIN). These crooks spend more for the crumpled metal than its worth, and that makes it hard for the honest parts recyclers to compete. They then steal a car that is the same make and model as the crashed vehicle and slap the VIN on the stolen car.

It’s in the interest of consumers to make sure the auto recyclers continue to have access to the total loss vehicles. One idea that has been adopted in New South Wales Australia is to “kill the VIN” off of a total loss vehicle, thus depriving unscrupulous and dishonest actors from either putting a dangerous car back on the road or stealing the wrecked car’s VIN. NCL believes U.S. policymakers should look at the New South Wales regulations and consider whether to adopt such a policy in the United States.