Copper recycling and sustainability Back Ford
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End of life vehicles (ELV)
An average car
The average family car needs around 20Kg of copper, mostly the electrical system

About 2 million vehicles are scrapped each year in the UK and this represents a huge volume of waste and a potential source of material for reclamation by recycling. An EU Directive (2007) will help to ensure that more vehicles are recycled when they are scrapped.

Copper in cars and lorries

The incorporation of electronics and electrically powered accessories has raised the length of copper wiring in a family car to about a kilometre, from an average of around 45 metres fifty years ago. The starter motor, lights, electric windows, anti-lock braking systems (ABS), air bags, entertainment systems and satellite navigation all rely on the high electrical conductivity of copper

Copper/copper alloys have a unique combination of properties which make them the first choice for a wide range of applications in cars and lorries. The weight of copper in a vehicle ranges from 15 kilos for a small car to 28 kilos for a luxury car and the benefits copper brings are illustrated in the applications shown below.

Properties and applications
High electrical conductivity
Copper has the highest electrical conductivity of any commercial metal and so copper wires (called the wiring harness) are used to carry current from the battery to equipment such as lights, central locking, on-board computers, in-car entertainment systems, satellite navigation and safety features such as airbags and ABS braking systems. Electric motors, which are wound with high conductivity copper wire, are used in many of these devices. The average car contains about 1km of wire.

For more information on the electrical conductivity of copper see:

Metal Thermal conductivity W/m OC
copper 394
Aluminium 238
Stainless steel 13

High thermal conductivity
When cars are driven the engines become very hot. This heat is removed with the aid of a coolant liquid which passes through a radiator which must be made from a material with a high thermal conductivity and good corrosion resistance. Copper and brass are excellent choices for this application. Radiators are removed from vehicles at the end of a car's life for recycling. As shown in the table, the thermal conductivity of copper is 30 times better than the thermal conductivity of stainless steel.

For more information on the thermal properties of copper see:

Good corrosion resistance
Copper and copper nickel tubes are used for vehicle brake pipes which are critical safety items. This is due to their good strength and corrosion resistance (especially against salt which is spread on the roads in winter), where any fluid loss could lead to brake failure and be disastrous. Because of their ductility they are also easy to fit; they are standard equipment for many cars, fire engines, military vehicles, JCBs and other heavy vehicles.

Scrap radiators
Scrap radiators recovered from end of life vehicles, ready to be remelted and recycled and turned into new radiators or other products

Good bearing properties
In contact with moving parts in the engine, copper alloys provide a surface which does not stick or wear easily whilst being strong enough to provide support. In this application it acts as a bearing.

End of Life Vehicles (ELV)
An ELV is any vehicle that has come to the end of its useful life.

ELV Directive
About 2 million vehicles are scrapped each year in the UK, and the European ELV Directive, which came into force in January 2007, is an attempt to minimise the amount of waste generated from ELV disposal. Sites which deal with ELV have to be licensed and meet high environmental standards. A typical ELV disposal site can deal with 180 cars per hour and the stages are:

Copper-nickel brake pipes
Copper-nickel brake pipes are easy to bend into shape- which makes fitting easy - and corrosion resistant.
  • Dismantling - any valuable parts are removed
  • De-pollution - all fluids such as oil and petrol/diesel are removed and recycled
  • Removal of wheels, tyres and battery
  • Shredding - the vehicle carcass is then smashed to small pieces with giant hammers spinning at 500 rpm
  • Vacuum treatment - the light non-metals (foam, fabric and wood) are sucked up and currently sent to landfill
  • Magnetic treatment to remove steel
  • Density separation of copper - the higher density of copper (8.9g/cm3) enables it to be separated from aluminium (2.7g/cm3) and magnesium (1.7g/cm3)

This is the only economical way to recover copper (and other metals). It is not feasible to remove components such as the wiring harness in one piece by hand; it would be too time consuming and expensive. About 80% of the copper is able to be recovered by this process; this value should increase as techniques improve.

What you should do
Owners are responsible for ensuring that they dispose of their ELV in accordance with the Directive. You should contact a licensed company such as EMR, SIMS or a reputable scrap merchant where you will receive a Certificate of Destruction on completion of the recycling process.

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