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Environmental Impact of Auto Recycling

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A 75-year-old recycling business and its current standing. Environmental Impact of Automobile/Car Recycling. Focusing on two geographic areas: Flushing and Jamaica. Also, looking at the broader aspect of recycling and what happens to the materials as soon as it leaves the auto recycling facility. What happens to vehicles when they are at their full potential? How and where are they dismantled? What is the crisis it poses? What does the vicinity look like? What sort of laws govern such businesses? What are some major concerns of the residents? How does it impact their daily life and what are the long term effects? The above questions have been answered through personal interviews and thorough research by studying articles and visiting the sites. Although the United States has started taking recycling into serious consideration, it is still lagging in terms of efficient recycling. There are still ongoing issues regarding inspection and updating the recycling industry. Age of laws need to be updated and regulated.

According to the Statista Research Department (July, 2019), there were about 276.1 million registered automobile and counting as of 2018 in the United States. With 1.4 million households out of 3.1 total households own a car, making it about 45% of New York City’s population. Every year the number only increases, so what happens to cars/automobiles that reach the end of their cycle? Recycling is the best way to sustain our environment and re-utilize resources. Car recycling has been the 16th largest industry in the United States recycling over 25 million tons of old vehicle material every year (Leblanc, 2019). Car recycling alone contributes to a huge amount of the nation’s GDP, approximately $25 billion per year. Let’s dive into auto recycling focusing on one of New York City’s borough, Queens. Queens has two major automobile zones; one is located in Flushing, around Citifield and College Point, whereas the other is Jamaica, around Linden and Sutphin Boulevard. This international industry of recycling is about 75 years old. Although these areas have been into this business for a very long time, some businesses have been grandfathered in; meaning the way these businesses have been operating are somewhat to an extent exempt from certain rules and regulations. Most of these business are small and individually operated businesses. These businesses have been collecting your old automobiles that have reached their full capacity, automobile parts, scraps, motor oil, coolants, antifreeze, plastic and other such related materials and have been recycling or sending out for recycling. An old vehicle’s parts from tires, windshield glass, car frame (metal), wheel rims, radiators, seats, carpets etc. are recycled. Basically 80% of a car’s parts are recycled and the rest 20% that cannot be recycled ends up as Auto Shredder Residue (ASR) (Leblanc, 2019).

Until 2017, United States sent most of their trash to China for recycling. When China shipped containers full of good for the American market, it returned back with empty containers. Back in 1995, local businesses saw this as an opportunity to convert trash into treasure and hence, instead of bringing back empty containers, they brought back trash that could be upcycled and converted into something useless for a fee. 'So it made a lot of sense to send [waste] out through the port in an empty ship that was going back anyway,' Bourque says (Joyce, 2019).

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These was huge containers of trash being shipped to China. Once China stopped accepting the import, United States fell into crisis and had to up their game of recycling. The trash that was being sent comprised of various different materials from shampoo bottles to take plastic containers, metal scraps to paper, etc. This trash was in turn hand sorted out, cleaned and then recycled for various purposes. But in this trash it also included unwanted or unrecyclable materials which ultimately ended up in landfills. Most of these landfills were located in rural areas close to farmlands. These trash containers also came along with materials that were not supposed to be in there. But there is always a loophole and as Americans didn’t have a set recycling system, they were able to sneak in the trash into those containers and illegally exported it. So what about these automobile parts?

The chain or process for recycling goes somewhat in this manner. An old vehicle has been brought in, drained of any fluid it contains, dismantled and broken down into the minutest of parts. Majority of the vehicle is recycled, example; the windshield glass can be recycled into tiles, the frame work is made of iron and the tenacity of iron allows it to be molded over and over without compromising the strength, engines, radiators and transmissions can be salvaged and be sold for a lower price again. About 20% that cannot be recycled comprises about ferrous and non-ferrous dust, certain glass material, fiber, rubber etc. This is known as Auto Shredder Residue (ASR) which is considered hazardous to health and contains certain substances such as PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyl), cadmium, lead, quartz etc. These substances can cause many adverse effects in any way they come in contact. The oil or fluids that are extracted then go on to petroleum refining plants. The most popular one is “Lorco Petroleum Services” located in New Jersey right by the Hudson river. Lorco Petroleum Services is a private organization and refines oil so it can either be reused or is made in subsidized diesel which is in turn used to operate various machineries. Most businesses have no in depth knowledge to what happens to the materials once it leaves their facility. They are only concerned with their role and regulations they need to adhere to. They are unaware as to what has been happening with the waste that is generated, where is it ultimately going, what exactly is happening to all the material. Hence, Martin Bourque, who runs one of the oldest recycling operations in the US as part of the Ecology Center (Joyce, 2019) wanted to find out. He attached a transponder to some of the unwanted waste material which was scheduled to be sent out to China. He then tracked the transponder, once the location was retrieved, he then contacted the locals to find out what was done with all the material. He found out that all that junk was being dumped into landfills located by farmlands and cornfields. All of that is still contaminating the soil which produces crops and finally being consumed by humans. In one way, we know that there are steps being taken to sustain the environment and recycle or upcycle whatever waste we can but at what cost?

Both Flushing and Jamaica are densely populated areas. The neighborhood is shared by commercial and residential occupants. But is it safe to reside in such vicinity? Dating back to 2017, local residents of Jamaica were concerned about their health safety standards around the auto recycling centers. At this scrap metal and car recycling business in Jamaica, residents say cars are sometimes piled up three stories high (McGowan, 2017). Another local resident, Charles Morant with the Greater Jamaica Defense Fund said, 'There is a lot of issues concerning soil contamination, water contamination and air contamination'. When the issue was brought to awareness and was covered by the media; Republican State Committeewoman, Scherie Murray said, “We're concerned about the health concerns that it will have on them over an extending period of time” and had urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take actions or at least start performing a study. Back then an EPA spokesperson, Morant said, “It’s not a simple process, it takes time to do. But we need to start it.” Ever since, not much of an action has been taken. The EPA spokesperson said that the agency had to delegate responsibilities of auto recycling to the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and that both the agencies have to inspect, study and enforce the businesses into compliance. The residents wanted to meet their officials and hopefully get a study funded.

Residing in and around such neighborhoods pose certain health and environmental concerns. Those concerns are not only limited to soil, water and air contamination but also noise, pest infiltration and personal health risks. Upon interviewing a few locals, I could conclude that most of their issues are regarding noise, air, and most of all pest infiltration. As the facility is operating during the day, residents hear metals clanging, plastic crushing, large trucks loading and unloading. This is not only limited to working hours during the day but also later in the evenings as well. Large tankers are still running up and down during late evening hours as most of these tankers choose to transport oil and other fluids while there is less traffic. The vicinity also has a very peculiar smell. Most of which smells of ferrous (iron); since majority of these vehicles are old, their parts have been corroded and hence producing such a smell and dust. Locals are concerned about health risks for inhaling such quality of air especially for children. The most annoying issue expressed by the locals are pest infiltration. Since the area is like a junk yard, sanitation within the vicinity may not be of top notch. Even of the warehouses or office are clean, the yards contain scrap metals inviting roaches, rats, mice etc. which in turn also infiltrate nearby houses. The tankers containing oil which was being transported is taken to a nearby facility, Lorco Petroleum Services located in Elizabeth, New Jersey where the oil is refined for reuse. It is located just across the Hudson river. Lorco Petroleum Services plant is also situated near a residential area. Here the residents complaint about seeing massive amounts of smog being emitted daily. Residents have also expressed concerns about oil seeping into drinking water. According to EPA and an article on the balance small business by Rick Leblanc, 2019 and Lasky, 2018; “these fluids reclaimed by auto recyclers is equal to 8 Exxon Valdez disasters”. In a way we are taking every measure to sustain the environment but at the same time we are putting many lives at potential risk. As the inspection and validation of auto recycling standards in Jamaica is still pending, residents are hoping to gain an answer soon so that certain laws that has been in effect for the past 75 years can be updated and changed to scenarios pertaining to this certain era.

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Environmental Impact of Auto Recycling. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-impact-of-auto-recycling/
“Environmental Impact of Auto Recycling.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-impact-of-auto-recycling/
Environmental Impact of Auto Recycling. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-impact-of-auto-recycling/> [Accessed 4 Mar. 2024].
Environmental Impact of Auto Recycling [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2024 Mar 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/environmental-impact-of-auto-recycling/
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