I’ve mentioned how, during the 1940s, my father and uncle supplemented the meager income from the farm by hauling kids to a couple of one-room schools. To that end, they each had a 7-passenger Cadillac limousine from the mid-’30s, that performed double duty as both school bus and family car. It was a challenge to keep the two Cadillacs running. They put in a lot of miles over terrible roads and broken axles were common, among other problems. I doubt the Cadillac dealer was ever a source for parts, but Rosenberg’s junkyard was. Rosenberg’s was located in Beaver Falls, Pa., and was crammed full of row after row of junked cars. Once, Dad and Uncle Chuck, with my cousin Peg, my sister B.G. and me along, visited the yard looking for a part. Leaving the three of us kids in the car, they disappeared into the jungle of old, junked cars and … never came back! At least that’s how it seemed to us. I think B.G. started crying first, then me, while Peg, who was older, tried to keep up our spirits. Finally, even she became concerned, and we all thought something horrible had happened to our fathers. At last, here they came, proudly carrying the greasy part they’d come for and amazed that we were taking on so.
By the late 1920s, Henry Ford had sold his fifteen-millionth Model T, even while falling into number two status behind General Motors. Scrapped, junked cars were everywhere, piled up in huge junkyards, dumped into rivers and lakes, or pushed into old mines and quarries. The country was awash in junked cars. Recycling began, but it was crude and smelly, and created almost as much pollution as the cars themselves. Scrap dealers removed any parts that could be re-sold, then set the rest of the hulk on fire and burned out the upholstery, wood and rubber. The remaining metal was cut up and sold as scrap. It’s easy to imagine the air, ground, and water pollution that resulted from the greasy, smelly, black smoke and the oily runoff of such an operation.
During the 1950s and ’60s, the steel industry, which used a lot of scrap steel in making new steel, began demanding much purer scrap. Also, about this time, government regulations banned the open burning of junked cars, while putting heavy restrictions on the smoke from the closed furnaces that were being used for the purpose. To keep from burning, many automobile graveyards compressed a whole junk car into a block that contained high levels of lead, tin, copper and chromium, any of which negatively affected the quality of the finished steel.
The scrap industry began to explore ways to convert a junked car into small chunks of contaminant-free steel that would be suitable for making new steel. After much experimentation, Proler Steel Corp., of Houston, Texas, developed a successful shredder in 1958. Other scrap processors got into the act and many improvements were made. One of today’s state of the art automobile shredders reduces a crushed car hulk into small, approximately one pound pieces, separates the ferrous from the non-ferrous metals, and removes the residue which consists of plastic, wood, glass, rubber, fabric, and dirt.
Before shredding, the salable parts of a scrapped car are removed. The fluids are drained and disposed of in an environmentally safe way. The tires and battery are removed and the car is flattened in a big hydraulic press before being hauled to the shredder. A conveyer carries the hulk into the shredder where many hammers attached to a heavy whirling rotor beat the car into pieces small enough to fall through a grate onto another conveyer belt. An air current is blown through the shredder and removes much of the light foam, plastic, dirt and fabric, which are considered waste that ends up in a landfill. The shredder output passes through a second blast of air that removes the rest of the non-metallic waste, before entering a magnetic separator. Here the steel is magnetically separated from the non-ferrous metals such as copper and aluminum, which can be sold to processors who use these materials. The steel chunks then pass through a manual inspection, where any non-metallic or non-ferrous pieces that may have slipped through are picked out. After this final inspection, the steel is shipped to the end-user, usually a mini-mill.
In the old days of steel making, huge mills took in coal and iron ore and processed these raw materials into finished steel. The open hearth furnaces then in use allowed as much as 40 to 60 percent scrap to be mixed with the raw iron, while the impurities were cooked out as slag. With the collapse of the old steel industry, steelmaking in this country has shifted to mini-mills that rely almost completely on scrap for their input. The electric furnaces in these mini-mills require small, uniformly sized pieces of scrap with a low level of impurities. This demand makes it possible, and profitable, for auto recyclers to build expensive shredding plants that may be more than 1000 feet long and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Scrap processors in the United States can harvest about a ton of usable scrap steel from each of the 13 million cars that are junked every year. This has to be one of the more successful recycling efforts, because not only are the valuable metals recovered, but the rest of the car is reduced to small pieces that take up less space in a landfill.
All this modern technology and pricey machinery is a far cry from Louie Rosenberg’s old junkyard that needed only a cutting torch, a few acres of oil-soaked ground, a rickety wooden fence, and an old wooden building.