No Such Thing as a Junked Car: Recycling the Automobile

A major polluting industry has enabled a highly sustainable practice without any political coercion, only economic incentive.
Image credit David Bergin Photography, obtained from Flickr

Image credit David Bergin Photography, obtained from Flickr

In our modern industrial world, the resource value of discarded cars is too high to ignore. Recyclable materials comprise around 86 percent of a car. Companies use these repurposed materials in  infrastructure projects that would otherwise heavily rely on freshly extracted resources. The profits of vehicle recycling are in the billions. It shows that a major polluting industry has enabled a highly sustainable practice without any political coercion, only economic incentive. However, the automobile industry has chosen to exclude the presence of recycling from its mass media campaigns. Instead it perpetuates the idea of the “brand new car.” This appeals to the modern consumer accustomed to factory-fresh items. If it were to instead broadcast how much of our infrastructure contains recycled materials some of the stigma that surrounds reuse might dissolve.

Rapid urbanization is occurring across the globe. Consumer demand for vehicle ownership is also increasing. This fierce international competition for our earth’s mineral resources has led to a high demand for steel collected from scrapped machinery. Automakers, however, are concerned only with advertising cars that sell. The sparkling new car in the lush wilderness of a magazine advertisement is attractive to the buyer. A used car is less so. The media designates salvaging as an activity for the financially unstable, seen as a necessity only for those who cannot afford to buy new. Junkyard dogs and their owners are mean-spirited and dangerous in the movies. They rarely act as heroes, though in reality they save the earth from losing thousands of additional pounds of metals, ores and other materials. Even though automakers are turning toward renewable sources of energy with technologies like hybrid vehicles, recycling still goes unmentioned as an ecological advantage of the industry.

Shelly DuBois of Fortune argues that the automotive industry is hiding its recycling practice because it does not want the consumer to reject gasoline vehicles and seek a more sustainable option. The authors Lutz speculate that the consumer is infatuated with the idea of “newness.” Soderman and Carter write in an essay that junkyards and landfills exist on the fringes of society. They are hidden from the public consciousness because they are seen as unclean. Innovations in waste disposal are neither recognized nor praised. To advertise a new car while marginalizing the role of recycled goods in its manufacture only strengthens the gap in our understanding of waste disposal and its actual contribution to our infrastructure. If we continue to believe that trash magically disappears once it is thrown out, and businesses continue to capitalize on this inaccuracy, then it will be harder to make progress toward a sustainable lifestyle. We could instead be lobbying for more waste solutions, using the automotive recycling industry as an example by which to model other processes and decreasing our resource extraction as a result. Instead of trying its best to send our refuse out of sight, we could embrace it for its secondhand value – whether that be recycled or salvaged.


Student Author: Sophia Danison

Sophia is a junior, studying Environmental/Global Studies at the University of Vermont.

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams, Ph.D., University of Vermont Professor of Media/Communication.



Corporate Media IssuesGreen

Environmental/Global Studies student, Junior, at the University of Vermont
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