Where does your car go when it dies? Legally, it must be disposed of in the correct way. Specialists called auto recyclers or auto wreckers know how to take care of this for you. Their businesses, once known as junkyards, provide us with a service we often take for granted.
Although you can find about three auto wrecking businesses in North County, the largest number exist in the South Bay. A string of auto wreckers, auto recyclers and scrap yards exist on “The Hill” next to Brown Field in Otay Mesa. Some may say that the area looks like dystopia. Others might call it a little boys dream playground. On the weekends, traffic is intense with individuals who are searching for parts.
There’s an irony to the craft of auto recycling: yards provide the service of dismantling and disposing cars, but they also face intense scrutiny. Vehicles contain many pollutants, such as corrosive batteries, freon, oil, gasoline and mercury. They must dispose of these items carefully, working with many other businesses to make it happen. As a consequence, most auto recyclers don’t want to talk to the press. They also don’t want visitors strolling through their yards due to liability issues.
David Street, owner of West Auto Wreckers, was kind enough to provide me with a tour of his yard, located along Main Street in Chula Vista. Although his yard isn’t located on The Hill, he’s an icon of Chula Vista because he has lived and worked here for decades. For those of us who would like to understand more about our community, David is going to tell us everything we need to know about auto wrecking.
David Street and West Auto Wreckers
David’s father opened a wrecking yard in 1933 at 9th & Island in downtown San Diego, right next to the ball park. In 1964, cheaper land meant his father moved further south. He opened West Auto Wreckers at the I-5 and H Street where Seven Mile Casino stands today.
In 1977, West Auto Wreckers moved to Main Street, which only became a part of Chula Vista when the area was annexed a few years later. David and his brother took over the business from their father and he now has been managing the yard for over 35 years.
He has 14 employees, including sales staff and dismantlers. Unlike the shops on The Hill that tend to be cash-and-carry operations, David generally doesn’t have walk-ins. Instead, he has created relationships with over 100 shops throughout San Diego County and works with mechanical repair, dealerships and body shops.
Dismantling An Automobile
David’s auto dismantling has been an art passed down from father-to-son. The process begins when someone calls the shop and asks David to make a fair bid on a car.
“We send our tow truck at the agreed upon time to get the vehicle.”
The vehicle is then brought into David’s warehouse where his dismantling specialists start the motor to make sure it runs. Some will have a bad motor, others will still have motors that are in good condition.
Drain The Fluids
Next, his employees drain out the oil, the freon and transmission fluids. He will take out the batteries and the mercury switches. Asbury Environmental Services will then pick up much of the used oil and other environmental pollutants and recycle the waste.
Get The Mercury Switches Out
Cars that are American made and about 10 years old also may have mercury switches in them. A mercury switch is about the size of a bullet for a .22 caliber gun. It’s small. However, it has a high risk of pollution.
“It took us over a year as an association to get car companies to tell us what they are, what they look like, where they are and what cars have them. They didn’t want to release any of that information,” David explains. Turns out, mercury is found when you lift up the trunk or hood of an older car and a light comes on: that’s where the mercury switch is located.
Deciding Which Parts Get Recycled
After David has taken the fluids out and de-toxed the car, he’ll decide what parts will be taken off. David uses a computer to tell him what’s going to sell and how long it’s going to take to sell. The computer also tells him the average lifespan of owning those parts. The information is based on their past inventory – so before dismantling a car, his employees also have to inventory each part.
Once David gets everything he wants off the car, the parts are ready to be sold. His best sellers are sheet metal: the fenders, doors and mirrors. The headlights are also a big sell. He specializes in wheels and sells about 10-20 per day.
The length of time a vehicle remains with David depends on many factors. Some vehicles stay twenty days, others one year. Due to the price of land in San Diego County, however, he can’t afford to keep a car in the lot for 5 to 10 years, they way an auto wrecker might be able to in Arizona where owners pay a tenth of what he’s paying for the land. Currently, David guesses he has about 250 cars on 4 acres of land.
Send It To The Scrap Yard
Once David has taken all the parts off the car, he sends it to the scrap yard, where they flatten the car with a crusher. The scrap yard is allowed to do this only by city ordinance. After that, the scrap metal is sent down to companies in Mexico where they shred it into little pieces about three inches square. They mostly make rebar from the pieces (the steel rods inside concrete). The rebar then gets resold back into the U.S.
They Sell The Metal At Fluctuating Market Rates
When the scrap yard buys the metal from David, they buy based on the fluctuating prices on the market. David explains, “Our metals are sometimes more precious than gold.”
Currently, metal is selling at about $38 to $40 a ton. A year and a half ago the yard was getting $300 a ton. That’s how drastic a fall metal has taken, similar to the gold market.
David says, “We’ve got a whole pile of cars over there. We’re hoping the price will go up. Even $10 when you’re talking about 200 tons, that’s pretty substantial. But our holding area is now full, so we have to get rid of some [of the vehicles].”
The Precious Metals Inside A Catalytic Converter
Besides selling metal at market prices, David has a company come and buy his catalytic converters. Very expensive metals are inside these converters: rhodium, palladium and platinum. Rhodium and palladium are about $2,500 an ounce. A large licensed company sends employees to retrieve the catalytic converters. The employees will look for the numbers on the converts that explains exactly how much of the metals are inside. They then buy the converters for between $60-400 a piece.
Those employees bring the converters back to the company where others wear space suits before opening them due to the other potential toxins inside. Once the metals are retrieved, the company can sell them on the market.
Auto recycling has been around for a long time. While in other countries, just dumping an old car down a ravine may be the way to go, it’s illegal in the U.S. Thanks to folks like David, we’ve got a way to dispose of our vehicles — something that most of us take for granted.
Thank you David for the tour of your wrecking yard!