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Our cars live on in different forms

Revealing the vehicle recycling processes
06/10/2022
Have you ever wondered how a car, which has about 30,000 parts, can be recycled to 99% of its original state? Many car owners are unaware of what happens to their beloved vehicles once they are no longer fit to drive. What world awaits vehicles after their driving days are over?

Built to be taken apart

A one-tonne steel car, like paper going through a shredder, meets its end at the hands of a massive machine. How is something as complex as a car pulled apart and turned back into usable resources? The secret, according to Toyota’s Environment Affairs and Engineering Management Division, lies in the way cars are put together. Toyota builds its cars with easy-to-dismantle designs. But what does easy mean, exactly?
“Toyota vehicles are made to be taken apart. By building this into designs, we can simplify disassembly work and boost recycling efficiency. Starting with the 2003 Toyota Raum (a Japanese domestic model), we’ve been adopting designs that streamline disassembly and sorting to promote the recycling of resources such as copper and rare metals from end-of-life vehicles.”

Masahiro Egawa, Environment Affairs and Engineering Management Division, Toyota Motor Corporation

It all begins with production

At every stage, Toyota’s production genba emphasizes the need to make work easier for those handling the next parts of the process. Even so, most people would not be aware that this even extends to the end of the car’s life a few decades into the future. Egawa speaks of one particularly satisfying sight during a vehicle’s disassembly. He refers to the moment when the electrical wiring harness threaded through the interior of a car is stripped "as smoothly as pulling the bones from a grilled fish” and revealed the secrets that allow this to happen.

Easy to assemble, easy to dismantle

To begin, the wiring terminals are designed to be easily removed when the harness is pulled, much like a can's lid. The wiring harness also has a point that, when pulled, allows it to be removed in one motion without coming apart. This spot is wound with yellow-green tape, making it easy to recognize, even when working with heavy machinery. Toyota has also brought the heavy machinery used by dismantlers into its plants. This aids research into easier dismantling, the results of which are reflected in vehicle designs. 

And, as the number of electrified vehicles grows, the team is already planning how they will be disassembled.

 

Cubes of vehicles

Vehicles arriving at the dismantlers are first drained of waste oils and other fluids. Bumpers, doors, engines, and other parts fit for use as second-hand spares are then removed. The leftovers are flattened in a press and taken to a recycling company. Toyota Times visited Toyota Metal, the world’s only recycling company jointly managed by a carmaker. There, each car is pressed into a cube weighing around 600kg. Several such blocks are hoisted together, crane game-style, into a shredding machine to be pulverized.

Sorting

From there, a conveyor carries them into a building where scrap steel is sorted away from non-ferrous metals such as aluminum and copper. This even includes small quantities of gold and silver. The steel thus recovered is taken to steel manufacturers, where it may again find its way into vehicle bodies—cars made from cars.

Appearances can be deceptive

After the metals have been recovered, what remains is a mixture known as “shredder residue,” which includes materials such as resin, urethane, and glass. To the untrained eye, shredder residue looks like nothing more than garbage. And yet, this too yields resources, as resins and other intermingled materials are also recyclable. The key to turning trash into resources lies in sorting.

Sorting of metals and plastics. Metals detected by sensors are blasted upwards by air guns.
Airflow from below separates lighter materials, such as urethane, from heavier objects.

400 tonnes of resources saved from end-of-life cars

Toyota Metal President Tadashi Matsumoto came to the company in 2019 after working in the field of environmental recycling at Toyota Tsusho, a Toyota Group trading company. “Twenty years ago, we were seen as a scrap dealer,” he says before explaining the company’s vision.
“Toyota Metal began in 1970, back when recycling was far from most people’s minds, with a dedication to the mission of reusing resources. We’re proud that we give disused cars a new lease on life as resources. Our modern society has vast reserves of resources waiting to be recycled and reused, and we want to unearth them to help create a circular economy.”

Tadashi Matsumoto, Toyota Metal President

We can’t turn our backs on recycling

Making cars carbon neutral is not just about production and use—figuring out what to do with them afterward is also crucial. In Europe, proposed regulations prohibit the sale of new vehicles unless they meet certain standards for recycled materials. Carmakers’ involvement in recycling companies will only grow more relevant. When it comes to four hundred tonnes per day, there is a world of difference between this becoming garbage and this becoming useful resources. “No other job is as good for our planet,” remarked another employee on that significance.
“My last job was in sales at a Toyota dealership, selling Corollas. I moved here because I was curious about what happens to the battered old trade-ins. At Toyota Metal, we extract up to 400 tonnes of resources daily from as many as 1,000 cars.”

Hirotaka Natsume, Toyota Metal Accounting & General Administration Department

The mystery of the last 1%

So, if 99% of the waste is recycled, what happens to the remaining 1%? Even that 1%, it turns out, has found a way to contribute to society. Toyota Metal is now being observed by manufacturers from sectors beyond the automotive industry. What happens there is not dismantling, but rather the creation of cutting-edge resources.

As Toyota President Akio Toyoda says, "Cars are one of the few industrial products that are affectionately called ‘beloved'." It is moving to think that, even at this moment, all those cars beloved by owners for many years continue to live on somewhere, only in a different form.