Recycle Your Ride? Vehicles Are More Sustainable Than You Might Think

08/09/2010 02:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When we think of recycled products, our thoughts usually center on paper, aluminum cans or glass bottles. That's why it might surprise you to know automobiles are among the most recycled of all consumer products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 95 percent of all end-of-life vehicles in the U.S. are processed for recycling -- compared to only 52 percent of all paper and 31 percent of all plastic soft drink bottles.

Also surprising is the percentage of an automobile's individual parts or components that can be recovered or reused at the end of a vehicle's life. At Ford, our vehicles are 85 percent recyclable by weight. Items you probably wouldn't have thought are recycled include the steering wheel, stereo, windshield wiper fluid, batteries and tires.

To make vehicles more sustainable, automobile manufacturers across the board have made a strong commitment to "reduce, reuse and recycle" as much material as possible. Reuse is the biggest part of the automobile recycling story. Auto recyclers supply more than one third of all ferrous steel scrap to the U.S. scrap processing industry.

But the automobile's sustainability story goes far beyond recycling scrap. Reducing the amount of materials used to produce vehicles also is important. In the reinvented 2011 Explorer, Ford reduced its use of virgin steel by an estimated 119 tons a year by making the SUV's noise-dampening fender baffles from steel left over after stamping the door openings out of F-150 body sides. While door stampings are just one small part, recycling the scrap can provide big environmental results.

Automobile manufacturers continue to search for ways to use recycled materials within our vehicles as well. Underbody systems in the Ford Escape Hybrid, such as aerodynamic shields, splash shields and radiator air deflector shields, are made from post-consumer recycled resins such as detergent and water bottles, diverting between 25 and 30 million pounds of plastic from landfills. Again, these are small parts that can deliver big results.

Other Ford vehicles use 25 percent recycled fiber in interior fabrics, including seat upholstery, bolster and carpeting. The use of recycled fiber instead of virgin fiber results in an estimated 20 percent reduction in energy consumption, 17 percent waste elimination and 14 percent reduction in CO2 emissions.

Certainly increasing fuel efficiency is the most impactful route for automobile manufacturers to make vehicles more sustainable. But, it's not the only way to make a difference. Today, the industry looks at every part of the vehicle and the processes used in making each piece of that vehicle. With an ongoing focus on reducing, reusing and recycling the materials in vehicles, we can continue to make them more environmentally friendly from start to finish, or as environmentalists know it, from cradle to grave.