Automotive Recycling Statistics and Trends

When we talk about recycling, the conversation often steers toward plastics. But you might be surprised to know that automobiles are actually the most recycled consumer products worldwide [6]. Historically, end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) found their way to the junkyard, and whatever wasn’t salvaged stayed put or went to landfills [9]. Now we know that whether salvaging parts for reuse or making new materials out of scraps, there is much to be gained from automotive recycling. So much so that about 95% of all ELVs are recycled in the U.S. alone [13].

Automotive recyclers play a vital role when it comes to both the environment as well as the vehicle repair industry. First, through recycled auto parts, consumers are given a more affordable option than new replacement parts [1]. Further, at times, recycled auto parts are the only options available, especially when it comes to older cars for which new parts are no longer made [1]. Second, automotive recycling conserves natural resources and reduces air and water pollution, all while keeping reusable materials out of landfills [1].

But just how many cars are recycled each year, and what is the impact this has on the environment? Continue reading to find out more.

Automotive Recycling Statistics

Key Insights

  • Cars are the most recycled consumer products worldwide [6]
  • 95% of ELVs are recycled in the U.S. each year [13]
  • 86% of a vehicle’s materials can be recycled in some fashion [1]
  • On average, about 12 million cars are recycled each year in the U.S. [7]
  • Globally, about 27 million cars are recycled each year [4]
  • The automotive recycling industry is 16th-largest in the U.S. employing more than 140,000 workers and generating about $25 billion per year [5]
  • 25% of a car’s body is made using recycled steel [7]
  • The automotive industry in the U.S. and Canada provides about 14 million tons of steel [7]
  • About 5-10 gallons of liquids (oil, coolant, and windshield washer fluid) are salvaged from each recycled car [9]
  • The automotive recycling industry saves close to 85 million barrels of oil in the production of new vehicle parts [5]
  • Laminated glass in the vehicles are mostly not recyclable and end up straight in landfill.
  • Catalytic converter is the most priced piece when recycling a vehicle. Price can range from $800 to $1,200 for the part alone.
  • By recycling metals, the automotive recycling industry reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 million metric tons each year [14]
  • In U.S., nearly 3 million tons of auto shredder residue (leftover from junked vehicle) ends up in landfill every year. 
  • The nationwide average of a scrap vehicle is $646 and junkyards usually enjoy a hefty margin of 50 to 70%. Clearly, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure
cars are most recycled consumer products and highly recyclable

A brief description of the automotive recycling industry

Generally speaking, automotive recycling refers to the environmentally responsible dismantling of an ELV to salvage reusable parts, reprocess scrap materials, and safely dispose of unusable parts [14]. Most cars still have value at the end of their lives, whether they’ve been retired due to age or involved in a crash, as their spare parts and more can be salvaged and later reused [5].

Employing more than 140,000 workers in over 9,000 locations nationwide, the automotive recycling industry generates about $25 billion per year [5]. Comparatively speaking, the global automotive recycling market size hit $72.3 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $160.2 billion by 2028, growing about 15.19% from 2023-2028 [2].

How are vehicles recycled?

The process of recycling a vehicle involves depollution by first removing all fluids from the car [14]. Next, the vehicle is dismantled, and all usable parts are removed for resale, many of which can be directly reused without first needing to be melted down or recast [14]. 

Following this comes deconstruction, where scrap materials such as steel and aluminum are sourced, and finally, reusable metals are processed and separated from any materials which cannot be reused [14].

How many cars are recycled?

In the U.S., about 12 million cars are recycled each year, on average [7]. That’s about 26 cars being recycled every minute [9]. For comparison, about 8 million cars are recycled in Europe each year [7]. Globally, about 27 million cars are recycled each year [4]. In looking at these numbers, it makes sense that cars are the most recycled consumer product worldwide. And as more countries push for sustainable practices and ramp up their automotive recycling efforts, these numbers will continue to rise.

For instance, India recently pushed for manufacturers to recycle ELVs in an effort to rid the country of millions of old cars no longer in working condition [4]. This, the government hopes, will lead to more regulation across the automotive recycling industry [4].

How much of each car can be recycled?

Of course, not every inch of these cars is recyclable, which largely depends on the age and specific make of the vehicle [5]. This is because today’s cars are made using less ferrous metals, or metals containing iron, than they were in the past and now use more plastics, which tend to be lighter and more fuel efficient [5].

Still, the vast majority of each car is able to be recycled. In fact, around 86% of a vehicle’s materials can be recycled in some fashion [1, 14]. What can’t be recycled—often made up of various metals, glass, fabric, paper, wood, rubber, and plastic—is labeled auto shredder residue (ASR) and ends up in landfills [7]. About 5 million tons of ASR is disposed of in landfills each year [7]. By contrast, about 75% of cars in Europe are recycled, with a new target of 95% recyclability [7].

What parts of a car can be recycled?

Effectively every piece of material which is both easy to remove from the car and can get a second life is salvaged [9]. Even the lead and acid found in car batteries can be extracted and recycled to make new batteries, glass products, and textiles [9].

Below are parts which can typically be reused or recycled [5, 9]:

  • Lead-acid batteries
  • Tires
  • Fenders
  • Engine parts
  • Transmissions
  • Fuel
  • Hoods
  • Bumpers
  • Wiper fluid
  • Engine coolant
  • Some computerized parts
Material that cannot be reused can still be used to create other items such as roofing, lighting, asphalt, and turf [5].

Steel: a sought-after material

While many components of a car’s makeup are salvageable, steel is certainly one of the most sought-after materials for its usefulness and versatility [8]. About 54% of the average vehicle is made of steel, and recycled steel is known to perform like-new, so it’s a no-brainer that steel is a car’s main recyclable material [8, 9]. In fact, an estimated 25% of a car’s body is made using recycled steel [7].

Thankfully, the U.S. and Canada’s automotive recycling industries provide a lot of steel—more than 14 million tons worth [7]. That’s enough steel to produce about 13 million new vehicles [7]!

Further, manufacturing recycled steel is more sustainable than producing new steel [9]. Specifically, recycled steel reduces air pollution by 86% and water pollution by 76% [9].

Tires and oil: other important recyclable materials

But it isn’t just recycled steel which has an environmental impact. Recycled tires and even oil have wide-reaching environmental benefits. For starters, tens of millions of tires are recycled from ELVs to create a number of different items, such as mulch, playground surfaces and running tracks [9].

Regarding liquids, the auto recycling industry is able to save millions of gallons of oil from ELVs. In fact, an estimated 5-10 gallons of liquids—namely oil, coolant, and windshield washer fluid—can be salvaged per car [9]. The importance of salvaging these liquids from ELVs goes further than their re-use. Left unattended, an ELV will eventually leak fluids onto the ground, leading to water pollution [9].

How is oil recycled?

Still, if you find yourself wondering how oil can be recycled, it’s important to note that used petroleum-based or synthetic oil doesn’t deteriorate. With time, however, impurities (dirt, chemicals, water, metal scrapings) find their way into the oil, impacting its performance [10]. Therefore, the oil simply needs to be either re-refined or replaced, saving a valuable resource [10].

Auto repair shops and local waste collection agencies can refer you to the best options for recycling these oils, as improper disposal poses dire consequences to the environment. The used oil from just one oil change has the potential to contaminate 1 million gallons of freshwater [10]. That’s a year’s supply for almost 16 average American families [10].

Environmental impact

In addition to reducing water pollution, automotive recycling also reduces air pollution, decreases the demand for landfill space, lowers solid waste generation, and conserves natural resources. By recycling metals, the automotive recycling industry reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 30 million metric tons each year [14].

It’s estimated that the automotive industry also collects and either reuses or recycles the following each year [1]:

  • 8 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel
  • 24 million gallons of motor oil
  • 8 million gallons of engine coolant
  • 5 million gallons of windshield washer fluid
  • 96% of all lead acid batteries

In doing so, the industry is able to do the following for the environment [5]:

  • Salvage enough steel in the U.S. and Canada to manufacture 13 million new cars and save enough energy in the steel industry to power over 17 million households
  • Save an estimated 85 million barrels of oil from being used to make new vehicle parts. That’s more than 8 Exxon Valdez oil spills! [11]

How to recycle cars

There are thousands of scrap and junk yards across the country for automotive recycling, and many will pay cash in exchange for your car [5]. These yards are well-versed in salvaging any reusable parts, with the below being some of the most sought-after, according to industry experts [5]:

  • Engines
  • Transmissions
  • Body parts (hoods, fenders, bumpers)
  • Tires
  • Batteries
  • Computer Systems

The above items tend to be the most expensive parts when bought new, which increases their desirability to automotive recyclers.

Industry trends

In order for cars to be recycled, there needs to be a sufficient supply of ELV vehicles. Interestingly, the pandemic has had a profound impact on the average age of all cars on the road. In fact, the average age of any given car on American roads has reached an all-time high of about 12.2 years old [3]. This can be attributed to the supply chain issues which impacted vehicle production, causing many consumers to delay or re-think their purchases, keeping existing cars longer or opting for used cars over new car purchases altogether. The average age has risen over the last five years and is expected to increase into 2023.

And it’s this rise in vehicle age which has impacted the number of cars being “scrapped,” or taken off the road, which can be recycled; in 2021, over 11 million, or about 4.2%, of vehicles were scrapped, compared to over 15 million, or 5.6%, in 2020. [3]

Electric vehicles and the future of automotive recycling

But it isn’t just the pandemic which has affected the number of cars available to automotive recyclers. Electric and hybrid cars present a unique challenge in the form of their lithium batteries. As previously discussed, traditional lead-acid batteries can be recycled, but lithium batteries contain hazardous materials which can explode if improperly disassembled [12].

Globally, a maximum of about 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled [12]. While many manufacturers such as Nissan, Volkswagen, and Renault, are already making strides in the recycling of these batteries, there is still a ways to go for the EV and hybrid markets as a whole [12]. With more and more of these sustainable vehicles hitting the market, many in the auto recycling industry may have to invest in the technology needed to dismantle lithium batteries once there is a greater supply of hybrid and electric ELVs available [11].


Time will tell if auto recyclers can quickly adapt to the needs of today’s new cars, especially hybrids and electric vehicles. Still, recycling ELVs is hugely beneficial. Not only does it help to conserve our planet’s precious natural resources but it also helps reduce pollution and keeps waste out of landfills. 

Salvaging certain parts breathes new life into old materials while keeping costs down for consumers who would otherwise have to spend on new parts—the production of which also creates more pollution. 

As technologies and education around sustainability continue to improve, we’ll only continue to see the automotive recycling industry grow, and this will have a positive impact on the environment and more.

Jason L Arthur

Jason L Arthur

Jason Arthur is a data junkie, writer, veteran amateur racecar driver and motorsport photographer. He is the co-founder of LookupaPlate, a collaborative platform to report bad drivers plying on American roads. He is also building a blockchain-based vehicle data marketplace (in stealth mode) and is an adviser to several startups. Jason has been tracking the automotive industry since the 1990s and has a disturbingly deep obsession with the automotive world, and loves to explore whatever roads he can find. From high-speed racing on the circuit to off-road exploration, Jason has an insatiable appetite for adventure. Jason has written for numerous publications, including Autocar Magazine, Motorsport Magazine, and Road & Track.

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