From the Lot to the Junkyard: How Much Waste Does Your Car Produce?

Approximately 17 million new passenger vehicles will hit the roads in 2021 while another 27 million cars worldwide reach their final destination of the great car park in the sky. Made from over 30,000 different parts, every automobile comes with a lot of hazardous and non-hazardous car waste.

Between your batteries, tires, and various fluids, there is plenty of automotive waste that you cannot get rid of in a dumpster or landfill.

Instead, companies like us at HWH Environmental follow “best practices for proper handling, transport and disposal” of your retired car waste to make sure we protect the environment.

Whether your vehicle is fresh off the lot or in need of frequent maintenance, it’s essential to understand how much waste your car produces and the best ways to dispose of it.

We developed a car waste guide to help you and your auto shop avoid any trouble by describing the types of hazardous waste your automobile produces throughout its lifecycle and how auto shops should dispose of it.

Non-Hazardous Waste vs. Hazardous Waste

Throughout our guide, we’re going to highlight non-hazardous waste and hazardous waste. Even though they share a similar name, their legal definitions (and regulations) are different.

Your car contains hundreds of parts, products, and fluids regulated as hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste is legally defined as “any waste that is toxic, flammable, corrosive, reactive, radioactive, infectious, or has been specifically identified by the EPA.”

Flammable hazardous wastes often found in automotive repair shops include “waste oils from oil replacement; spent solvents from paint removal, car washing, and degreasing; and methanol used for paint removal.”

“Battery acid, phosphoric, hydrochloric, and hydrofluoric acids used in the vehicle maintenance industry for parts cleaning and degreasing” are examples of corrosive hazardous waste.

Reactive hazardous wastes “can cause explosions, toxic fumes, gases, or vapors when mixed with water,” as found in lithium-sulfur batteries.

Toxic waste is any waste that is harmful or fatal if ingested. This includes materials used in “rustproofing, painting, paint removal and parts washing and degreasing” products.

Non-hazardous waste is all other wastes that aren’t defined as hazardous. That includes paper, plastic packaging, and office supplies.

HWH Environmental handles commercial customers’ hazardous and non-hazardous waste removal, transportation, and disposal needs. By doing so, we help reduce their exposure to dangerous substances and keep their workplace safe.

How Much Hazardous Waste Does My Car Produce?

The world produces 13 tons of hazardous waste every second – the equivalent of 400 million tons per year. 

While an older generation vehicle will produce more waste than a new one, even electric cars still produce hazardous waste.

As a vehicle owner, you should know about the various types of waste that your car produces throughout its lifecycle. Whether your tires are hitting the road or that mile-clicker is ticking over 200,000, there is hazardous waste to remove.

Hazardous and Non-Hazardous Waste at an Auto Shop

Auto shop owners must understand the various government regulations about the hazardous (and non-hazardous) waste their businesses handle.

Using the guidelines found in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, “your shop needs to determine how much hazardous waste is generated per month because the storage, handling, training, and disposal requirements for hazardous waste vary based on a shop’s monthly hazardous waste generation.”

A 2018 interview with the Environmental Protection Agency highlights the “cradle to the grave” risk of auto shops handling waste. The EPA defines “cradle to grave” as how businesses store, transport, and dispose of hazardous waste.

The EPA produced a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Vehicle Maintenance Guide with a checklist that lists the lifecycle of typical vehicle maintenance waste. If you are running an auto shop, it’s essential to understand these rules and regulations to avoid penalties.

Fresh Off the Lot

You just bought a car; that new car smell is still permeating throughout your morning drive. No oil changes on the horizon, everything in your vehicle is running as if it’s straight off the factory line.

But your car is already producing waste.

Automobiles produce on average around “4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year” and about “8,887 grams CO2/ gallon” of tailpipe carbon dioxide. And while electric vehicles don’t produce carbon dioxide, they use bulkier batteries, thus creating a large hazardous waste footprint.

A new car isn’t likely to produce a ton of new waste.

Hazardous and non-hazardous waste like tires and fluids aren’t an issue until a couple more months, or years, into your car’s lifecycle.

Early Lifecycle Car Waste: Gasoline

More often dealt with at gas stations than auto shops, gasoline is one of the earliest wastes related to your car.

A flammable liquid, gasoline burns off while driving your car. Usually, gas stations go through gasoline quickly enough that it doesn’t become an issue.

But suppose you have a motorized lawn mower or have a spare canister of gasoline in the shed. In that case, it is crucial to know the safest way possible to dispose of it.

Be aware that gasoline has a safety lifespan of around 6 months.

If you find yourself in possession of bad gasoline, there are a couple steps you can take to avoid danger. First, using a funnel, dispose of the gas into a disposable, gasoline-approved container.

Next, research your area to see if you can recycle your old gas or drop it off at a specific hazardous waste disposal center.

From there, drop it off, and that’s it. The disposal center will use best environmental practices to dispose of the gasoline.

Early Maintenance

Now that your car is a bit older, visited a couple of different states, and maybe even features a couple of dings or scratches, it is time to revisit our conversation about hazardous waste.

At this point, you are most likely beginning to change the oil on a more regular basis, switch out filters, and flush out your antifreeze.

That’s all automotive waste.

Suppose you are the type of person who likes to change their own oil in the driveway. In that case, steps are still needed to safely remove hazardous materials from your property.

Automotive shops that handle many more car fluids have their own processes to dispose of hazardous car waste. Small businesses require a hazardous waste disposal company to pick it up and remove it from the shop.

As your vehicle ages, understand that it begins to produce more hazardous car waste and requires extra safety precautions to keep yourself and your auto shop protected.

Early Maintenance Lifecycle Car Waste: Antifreeze

Of all the fluids listed here, antifreeze is the most difficult to pin down as to whether it’s a hazardous waste.

There are two types of antifreeze: “the most common is ethylene glycol antifreeze, which is odorless, sweet-tasting (but toxic), and usually greenish-yellow in color, and propylene glycol antifreeze, usually pink, is less toxic than ethylene glycol.” Despite varying degrees of toxicity, both kinds of antifreeze are dangerous.

The issue with antifreeze is that whether or not it is hazardous depends on the generator’s conclusion. 

Antifreeze is considered hazardous if “contaminated with certain metals, such as lead, cadmium or chromium…[or] if it has been mixed with other wastes such as gasoline or solvents.” If you are unsure, there are laboratories that will sample the antifreeze and determine whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous waste.

Recycling centers can accept non-hazardous antifreeze.

If the determination concludes that the waste antifreeze is hazardous, then it follows hazardous waste regulations.

The rules about those determinations vary from state to state, so make sure you double-check before doing anything else.

Early Maintenance Lifecycle Car Waste: Oil

The Environmental Protection Agency defines used oil as “any oil that has been refined from crude oil or any synthetic oil that has been used and as a result of such use is contaminated by physical or chemical impurities.”

If the oil was used, then it is considered used oil.

Every year, “380 million gallons of used oil are recycled” and put back into the world furnace fuel oil or re-refined into lubricant. Used oil becomes one of the most versatile forms of hazardous car waste.

There is a difference between used oil and waste oil when it comes to hazardous car waste regulations. You can recycle used oil, whereas waste oil must follow “in accordance with all applicable solid and hazardous waste requirements.”

Like antifreeze, there are specific regulations based upon state law regarding hazardous and non-hazardous waste.

Early Maintenance Lifecycle Car Waste: Filters

Used filters, like antifreeze and oil above, are not regulated under the RCRA.

The EPA states that the common practice is “to puncture the filters, drain the used oil into an appropriate container and then recycle the filters as scrap metal.” From there, the used oil is then recycled.

Terne plated oil filters, made from an alloy of lead and tin, are sometimes considered hazardous waste if thrown away. But if adequately drained and sent for scrap metal, they are also exempt from RCRA hazardous waste regulations.

Suppose you’re unsure whether your used oil filters are hazardous waste or the proper way to dispose of them. In that case, you can reach out to the Filter Manufacturers Council Hotline at 800-99-FILTER.

Later Cycle Maintenance

You and your vehicle have bonded; years of long car rides, singing along to your favorite records. It’s become a part of you. And while it’s not getting any younger (past your 100,000-mile warranty), your car is still as important.

It just needs a little bit more care now and again.

Instead of regular car washes, it’s scheduled mechanic check-ins. Tires, batteries, and other fluids need replacing more often. As your vehicle ages, the amount of waste produced increases.

Automotive shops handling used tires, batteries, and any other fluids should have proper protocols for possible hazardous car waste disposal.

Late Cycle Car Waste: Tires

Old and used tires are not considered hazardous waste, which means they are not regulated under RCRA.

When there is a tire fire, “tires break down into hazardous compounds including gasses, heavy metals, and oil,” which can then pollute the environment and seep into the ground.

The good news is that scrap tire consumption has dramatically increased over the past two decades from only 11% of scrap tires consumed in 1990 to 81.4% consumed in 2017.

If you are looking to dispose of used tires, there are a couple of options available. You can always take your used tires to a tire dealership nearby (usually for a price), which will then send them off for recycling. Some dumps also take used tires, but you should call ahead of time to make sure.

For auto shops and tire dealerships, HWH handles mass tire removals.

Late Cycle Car Waste: Batteries

There are two types of automotive batteries to talk about here: lead-based and lithium-ion. Under the right conditions, the government can label both kinds of batteries as hazardous waste.

Most cars still use lead-based batteries. Because these batteries still contain sulfuric acid and lead, they are hazardous waste.

Of course, if you plan on recycling a lead-acid battery, then the restrictions are lifted and treated as universal waste.

Hybrid and electric vehicles tend to use lithium-ion batteries. These batteries contain RCRA toxic metals. If the lithium-ion battery exhibits any characteristic of hazardous waste, then disposal must follow RCRA guidelines.

There are two places you can bring your old car batteries: auto shops or recycling facilities. No matter what, do not throw it in the trash as it can become a fire hazard.

For proper at-home car battery disposal, you will want to place the battery in a thick plastic bag, make sure it is laying upright, and bring it to your local facility.

Auto shops should return any used or old batteries to a nearby recycling center or reach out to a hazardous waste disposal company like HWH Environmental.

Late Cycle Car Waste: Fluids

You will have to change your transmission fluid, brake fluid, and windshield wiper fluid at some point in your car’s life cycle. Many of your vehicle’s fluids contain chemicals that would classify them as hazardous waste.

Collection facilities or sometimes, a recycling facility will take used automotive fluids. Call first before taking any auto fluids with you in the car. Different states have different rules on regulating old car fluids, so it’s best to either call ahead of time.

Another option is reaching out to a hazardous waste transportation company that will guide you through the process, pick up your old vehicle fluids, and transport them to the correct location.

Car Recycling

After a decade or so run, your car is finally ready to take its final vroom into the unknown. Now what?

It is time to recycle your old car. Vehicles start off at the junkyard, where employees dismantle your car in search of usable parts. Even though your car is old, there are probably still plenty of parts on it that could get some use.

Next, the junkyard crushes your car and shreds it into handheld pieces. This makes it easier to bring in scrap metal.

After the junkyard combines scrap pieces, they ship the new pieces off to manufacturers. Car manufacturers will recycle and reuse those parts, maybe even in the next car you buy.

Need Help Sorting or Disposing of Car Waste?

Whether you are a car owner or auto shop, cars produce hazardous and non-hazardous waste. Keeping up with disposal and storage regulations is difficult, but HWH Environmental is here to help.

We handle commercial, manufacturing, and industrial hazardous and non-hazardous waste removal, transportation, and disposal needs. And not just for cars, we also deal with chemical waste, laboratory waste, chemical solvents, industrial waste, liquid waste, construction waste, recyclable materials, and universal wastes.

Have waste you need to get rid of? Call us at 866-762-0736.

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