In summary

The Department of Toxic Substances Control is threatening to effectively shut down car recycling plants by calling them “hazardous waste treatment” facilities.

By Doug Kramer and Gary Umphenour, Special to CalMatters

Doug Kramer, president of Kramer Metals Inc., was chairman of the board of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, doug@kramermetals.com. Gary Umphenour is president of the State of California Auto Dismantlers Association, gary@unitedtruckdism.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

Have you ever been driving down the freeway and seen a flatbed truck with a big stack of flattened cars and pickups on board, and wondered where these crushed vehicle carcasses were heading? 

There are hundreds of these trucks on the road every day in California.  Just where do old cars go when they die? The answer may surprise you.

As a nation-state of more than 40 million people combined with the legacy of the state’s car culture, California is home to more than 36 million registered vehicles. Just like any other durable goods, some of these vehicles reach the end of their useful life every year – about 1.5 million per year. 

With the average weight of cars at about 4,000 pounds, these vehicles constitute about 3 million tons of scrap metal every single year that must be managed in a safe and efficient manner. Most are shipped to facilities you may have never heard of or seen: metal-recycling centers. 

Through a mechanical process known as metal-shredding, from the mightiest Cadillac SUV to the most “Ram tough” pickup, these vehicles are quickly shredded in a large device called a “hammermill” into fist-sized chunks, which are then sorted into various types of metals for sale in the scrap-metal commodities market. 

This scrap metal is then turned into new steel and other products. So rather than littering our communities, these old cars are recycled into raw materials that can be used to make new cars and household appliances, and to build roads, bridges, housing, hospitals and schools. 

There are two main reasons why this auto-recycling process is hugely important to the state’s environment and its residents. 

First, it takes literally millions of old, un-drivable cars out of our communities and off our streets. Second, it turns these vehicles into reusable materials that lower the cost of steel products and improve our environment. Recycled metal saves huge amounts of energy and preserves natural resources. Steel made with scrap metals uses 90% less virgin material, 70% less energy and 40% less water than steel made from mining iron ore and coal. 

Although the California metal-recycling industry has been operating safely and efficiently for more than 50 years, a department of state government – the Department of Toxic Substances Control – is now threatening to effectively shut down these recycling plants by calling them “hazardous waste treatment” facilities. This makes no sense and it is just plain wrong under the law.

Scrap metal is not a waste, let alone a hazardous waste, and has never been classified as hazardous waste under either California or federal law. Consequently, the scrap-metal recycling process has never been considered hazardous-waste treatment.  

These metal-shredding facilities are not a public nuisance or health threat. All are located in ports or other areas zoned for industrial activity. In many cases, these facilities have co-existed with longtime neighbors who are not even aware of their presence.

It would be an environmental disaster of massive proportions if the industry that recycles the millions of tons of old cars in the state is shut down due to overzealous and unnecessary regulation by a state government that fails to acknowledge the obvious benefits of this important industry. The manner in which old cars are shredded is purely physical, involving no use of harmful chemicals, toxic substances or hazardous materials, and no heat or incineration. 

The consequences of eliminating the infrastructure that rids the state of 1.5 million vehicles every year – through beneficial recycling – would be dire.

Where do old cars go when they die? Look at the appliances in your home, the new car you’re driving, the bridges you cross and the roads you drive on, and the apartment or condo in which you live. That’s where they go – into new products.

So the next time you see crushed cars going down the freeway, you can feel fortunate that they are headed for metal-recycling facilities to find new life, and are off our streets, back alleys, vacant lots and fields. And hope our state government is wise and practical enough to keep it that way.

_____

Doug Kramer, president of Kramer Metals Inc., was chairman of the board of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, doug@kramermetals.com. Gary Umphenour is president of the State of California Auto Dismantlers Association, gary@unitedtruckdism.com. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.