Recyclers who are looking to keep metals in circulation will take almost anything. Recyclable metals can be as thin and light as aluminum or as thick and dense as lead. One small piece of metal can be of value, and so can an entire discarded automobile. When a car or light truck has given so much of itself that it’s not even fit to be a high schooler’s first set of wheels anymore, that auto is destined for the salvage yard. Even if that car in its current form won’t be back on the road, its components and materials can find new life in new applications—even as parts of new cars. By understanding how auto salvage works, you can open new revenue streams for your scrap yard by offering a “final resting place” for your market’s exhausted cars that, thanks to the recyclability of their parts, won’t be quite so final after all.


The process begins with getting the car in the yard. Some drivers may be able to drive their car to the yard, but an automobile bound for the salvage yard rather than the used car lot often isn’t in any condition for its owner to drive it there. This necessitates towing on the part of the recycler. Scheduling a pickup is also the ideal time to start establishing the value of the car you’ll be picking up. You may need to take the owner’s word in giving an initial quote, which may turn out to be slightly off base upon first-person inspection.


Scrappers hope to “use the whole buffalo” when it comes to recycling an automobile. This means stripping all possible assets from a unit before sending any remaining steel away. Of course, not everything is fit to be reused. Specifically, the various fluids that course through a car need to be drained before continuing with the salvage process. This includes engine coolant, motor oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid, and power steering fluid, as well as any remaining gasoline. While a few of these fluids can themselves be recycled in certain instances, recyclers must still fully remove these chemicals from the parts in which they circulate.

Non-Ferrous Metals

Though steel scrap’s resale value is notoriously low, there are often more lucrative metals in the construction of a car or truck. Be on the lookout for copper, aluminum, and zinc in parts beneath the main body of the car. Finding these non-ferrous metals in generous quantities is often what makes auto salvage worth it for a business.

Automotive Glass

When recycling a car, you’re not only after the steel that makes up the majority of its composition and the other non-ferrous metals in parts. Even auto glass, with additional processing, is recyclable. Modern windshields feature a thin layer of polyvinyl butyral, or PVB, which protects drivers and passengers from windshields shattering into large and deadly shards. Rather, this treated windshield glass crumbles upon high impact, keeping any one piece of the glass from being particularly dangerous. However, in order to return this glass into circulation, a specialist must remove the PVB membrane between the two layers of windshield glass before pulverizing and melting the remaining glass for reuse. You probably won’t find recycled windshield glass in your kitchen cabinet, but you may find it in terrazzo flooring, reflective paints, and fiberglass insulation. Even if your own facility doesn’t have the capability to recycle glass on the premises, you can do business with those who do specialize in breaking down treated glass.


Though they’re not made of metal, auto salvagers will set tires aside for recycling as well. Tires can be retread and resold or melted down into new tires. Many high school running tracks today do not have asphalt surfaces that maximize joint impact, but rather a composite of granulated and reconstituted tire rubber, whose shock-absorbing properties protect the knees of runners far better than hard pavement does. As artificial grass surfaces make their way to the high school and community ranks, granulated rubber serves as the infill for synthetic grass, taking the place of natural dirt.

Auto Textiles

Also not metallic but of great value in auto salvage is a car’s upholstery. More and more, auto upholstery is becoming a commonly recycled component of a car, with textiles in new models incorporating polyesters that use everything from recycled upholstery itself to post-consumer waste such as recycled plastic bottles. This is one of the more effective ways in which auto manufacturers reduce their carbon footprints and save energy. Outside of the auto industry, the fabrics in car seats find alternative uses in upcycling, where they can be reused in other products such as wallets. Whatever the fate of this upholstery turns out to be, it’s imperative that salvagers remove it all from an automobile in the scrapping process, so as not to let this valuable material go to waste.

Compression and Shredding

Readers and recyclers of a certain age may remember the animated film The Brave Little Toaster, where “condemned” cars are sent to a crusher in a particularly traumatic scene. Fortunately, the cars that salvagers work with generally lack the emotional valence of their animated anthropomorphic counterparts. Just as scrappers bale loose scrap metal into easy-to-ship cubes, so too must they compress what remains of cars after harvesting all other usable parts. A crane magnet generally does the heavy lifting in this sequence. Once all other usable components are absent, the remaining steel that makes up a car is crushed and sent off for shredding. Once shredded into manageable chunks, roughly the size of an adult fist, the steel is smelted and reused—most likely in a new car.

In Summary

Our automobile industry, in Detroit and around the world, would not be sustainable without vigorous efforts to reclaim every possible part of a car or truck. You can increase revenue and global sustainability alike by understanding how auto salvage works and how your recycling facility can play a part in the life cycle of the materials that go into our vehicles. Electromagnets and other products from Moley Magnetics can help you and your staff do the work of putting materials back on the road or out in the world in new forms.

How Auto Salvage Works