The future of vehicle recycling

Maintaining your car by using recycled parts makes more sense than ever, thanks to a rejuvenated online sales portal and high-tech dismantlers...

Ebay scrapyard feature

While I have fond memories of clambering up a stack of scrapped cars to unbolt a part from one to go on my old motor, that was many years ago, and these days I’m far more cash-rich, time-poor and too risk-averse to go hunting for parts in an oily scrapyard. I’d much rather order a replacement part online and have it delivered to my door the next day. Luckily for me and millions of other motorists, the secondhand parts sector has largely gone online, so I can still save money by choosing a recycled or reconditioned part instead of a new one.

As the UK’s biggest automotive parts marketplace, eBay is where many car owners and repairers go for replacement parts. It's also a popular source of parts for private buyers and traders fixing Category S and N accident damaged cars

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However, it hasn’t been considered as good as buying from a high street store or an online brand specialist, because you couldn’t guarantee where the part had come from and what the quality was like. To give buyers confidence and counter the poor perception of some of the private sellers who offer parts for sale on the website, eBay has just relaunched its Certified Recycled portal.

This sub-section of eBay Motors was originally set up in 2020 on a small scale, and it now has two million parts offered by 81 sellers, all of whom have been checked and certified by the Vehicle Recyclers Association and are subject to an annual audit of their processes and policies.

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Certified Recycled parts account for 20% of all car parts sold on eBay. All of the parts offered on this portal have been sourced from scrapped vehicles that have been accurately identified, recorded and tested. They are graded from A to D, depending on their condition and the mileage of the vehicle they’ve been taken from. For extra peace of mind, all body parts are covered by a 12-month warranty and all mechanical parts have three-month cover.

Buying used parts rather than new ones brings a number of benefits, beyond lower prices, including that they can often be sourced faster and don’t have as much of an impact on the environment, because less CO2 (carbon dioxide) is produced in recycling them than in making new parts.

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According to eBay, Certified Recycled parts cost on average 70% less than their new equivalents, and the British motorists who had them fitted to their cars in 2022 saved £96 million. It also says UK shoppers buying used car parts helped to save 16,000 tonnes of CO2 last year and stopped 3000 tonnes of waste from being sent to landfill.

It isn’t just private buyers and car repairers who are fitting recycled and reconditioned parts; insurance companies are beginning to use them, too. This follows the withdrawal of a regulation that previously required them to obtain the permission of car owners before used parts could be used in repairs.
As a result, the costs and time involved in insurance repair work are likely to be reduced and your annual premiums won’t be as badly affected in the future.

Insurer Allianz now has a policy of fitting ‘green’ parts to cars undergoing non-safety-related repairs. A green part is one that is undamaged and has been recovered from a scrapped vehicle. They are the same as the original part fitted to the vehicle and are the same age or newer than the parts they replace.

Another insurer, Esure, has introduced a similar policy and says its branded body shops used 4698 recycled parts, saving around 138 tonnes of CO2 last year. Using recycled parts should also help to reduce the cost of repairs and premiums for motorists, helping them save money on car insurance. 

How much can you save by buying recycled parts? 

Car Part Price new eBay price Saving
2018 Vauxhall Corsa Bootlid £563 £138 £425 / 75%
2019 Nissan Qashqai Bonnet £377 £120 £257 / 68%
2018 Mini Cooper D Headlight £598 £275 £323 / 54%
2021 Tesla Model 3  Rear door £558 £360 £198 / 35%
2020 Volkswagen Golf  Door mirror £306 £200 £106 / 34%

How Charles Trent sources Certified Recycled parts

One of the biggest suppliers of parts to the Certified Recycled portal, and the UK’s biggest seller of used car parts, is Charles Trent, a vehicle dismantling business that’s been operating since 1926 and sells 3000 parts a week to private car owners and car repairers.

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It’s a family business, now run by the fourth generation, Mark Trent, assisted by his son Jordan. Their main site in Poole, Dorset, is no ordinary scrapyard; over the past five years it has been transformed into Europe’s first major car ‘deproduction’ line, with 180 employees.

Mark got the idea for the high-tech car dismantling depot in 2017 when he was in France on a tour of a small Renault recycling demonstration site. It was able to dismantle cars quickly and efficiently on a deproduction line that worked in the opposite way to those used to make new cars. After five years and £10 million of investment, the Trents have built a far larger version of it in Poole. It’s the first of five sites planned over the next five years.

The facility opened in August 2022, and it has enabled the company to double the number of cars it handles every day. At present, it can process 75 cars a day, but when it’s running at full capacity it will dismantle up to 100 cars a day. That translates into 3500 parts a week at present, rising to 5000 soon, and they’re usually ready to be shipped out within 24 hours of being removed. Half are sold via eBay and the rest via the company’s own website.

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Mornings at the site are busy, with a fleet of 35 trucks delivering scrapped vehicles from within a 70-mile radius, having collected them from insurance companies, auction houses, dealers and private car owners. The average age of the vehicles being scrapped is 15 years old. Around 70% of them have simply come to the end of their usable life, but an increasing number of them are insurance write-offs that are too costly to repair.

Charles Trent doesn’t simply take whatever cars are on offer, though. It uses a predictive computer system to highlight the makes, models and parts that are most frequently required, and it receives lists from car body shops of parts they require. This means the company usually already knows which parts it will take off each vehicle before it arrives.

In keeping with the facility’s green ethos, a local solar farm provides 70% of its electricity – a figure that will rise to 100% later this year.

The deproduction process

Before dismantling gets under way, the car is cleared of rubbish and photographed, plus its registration, VIN number and mileage are recorded. The parts being removed are checked to ensure they work, then notes about them are logged into a computer and a QR code is attached to the car to provide the staff doing the dismantling with all the details they’ll need.

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Next, the car goes to a ‘depollution’ depot where the battery, wheels and tyres are removed and it’s drained of all fluids. The fuel, brake fluid, oil and coolant are all filtered; any diesel is used in the company’s cranes, and petrol is refined and sold to staff at a discount.

After that, the cars go to the start of the deproduction line in a newly built warehouse, where they are partially dismantled in just 15 minutes. There are four stations in this line, and the cars are dangled from specialist lifting equipment that allows them to be turned onto their sides and pushed along the line.

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At the first station, the doors and bonnets are removed. At the second, the lights and centre consoles are taken out. At the third, the engine, gearbox, rear axle, catalytic converter and tailgate come off, and at the fourth, the dashboard, wiring loom, infotainment system and heater control unit are taken out.

The stations are staffed by qualified mechanics, who have to be very knowledgeable, because they’re working on a huge variety of makes and models and need to know how to take them all apart without damaging any parts. The technicians scan the attached QR code to get a list on a computer screen of the parts that are wanted from each car.

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They can manoeuvre the vehicles around so that parts can be removed easily and without the technicians having to do any heavy lifting. There are also hoists and smaller lifting equipment to hold up doors and other large panels while they are being removed.

Body panels and doors are checked for defects and given a grading; only those that are deemed to be Grade A, with no marks or blemishes, are packed into protective crates for sale to car repair shops.

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The second stage of deproduction involves the removal and breaking down of large mechanical components such as engines, gearboxes, driveshafts, steering racks and braking systems. These are checked and prepared for resale. Non-running engines are worked on by expert mechanic Ollie (who claims he hasn’t yet been defeated by one) and then they’re cleaned in what looks like a giant washing machine.

The third stage of the process is to remove smaller parts such as door mirrors and window mechanisms, inspecting them and identifying their part numbers in readiness for resale.

The final stage is another check, further cleaning and photographing of all parts, packing them in boxes or crates with identification labels, and storing them on shelves so they’re ready to ship when they’re ordered. The stock number on each box relates to a car’s registration, so the parts are totally traceable.

What happens next?

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The far end of the warehouse consists of floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with parts ready to be sent out. It contains 71,000 parts worth £8 million, including 1500 engines and 2000 gearboxes. An electric forklift is used to add items to the shelves and retrieve them when they’ve been purchased. It is linked to a computer system that logs the exact location of all the parts in the storage racks so it can go straight to the right spot to pick up each component for shipping.

Once all the usable parts have been taken off the scrapped cars, the metal that’s left is crushed by an electric baler and the metal squares are recycled. In total, 96.3% of each car that goes through the yard is recycled; the only parts that aren’t are the tyres, which the company has to pay to get rid of.

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Charles Trent’s biggest-selling item is door mirrors, followed by headlights and bumpers. In total, it sends out two lorry loads of parts every day. 

What Car? says…

You can make substantial savings by opting for a recycled part for your car instead of a new one from the manufacturer. Just make sure it’s an original equipment part from a car of the same age as yours (or newer), and that it comes from a reputable source, such as a member of the Vehicle Recyclers Association.

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We’d advise against buying used when it comes to safety-related components such as those for braking systems, but it’s well worth considering undamaged body panels, lights and exterior and interior trim. It might be best to source larger, more expensive items, such as engines, gearboxes and other complex components, from a recognised reconditioning company so that you know they’ve been refurbished.

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