Where cars go to die: a look at the final drive for automobiles

Think of all the cars you see on the road, someday they will end up in the junkyard.

15 million cars are junked in the United States every year.

So what happens once they reach the junkyard? It's the end of the road; the crusher is where cars go to die. 

Tow truck driver Brian Pizer often takes cars for their final drive. When FOX 10 caught up with him, he retrieved Shelen Ells car. 

"I had it for a year before it completely died," said Shelen Ells.

It's a 2006 Scion that Shelen loved.

"It was a beautiful car; I love scions," said Ells.

Shelen is like a lot of us; we get emotionally attached to these hunks of metal.

"I am very sad to see my car go, I've taken this car all over California, we've driven all over Arizona, it's definitely been my favorite," she said.

Brian pays Shelen $200 to take the undrivable Scion off her hands.

Selling the car wasn't an option. "No one is gonna buy it; nobody buys dead cars," said Ells.

It turns out, yes they do. There is big money in auto recycling.

Welcome to Pick A Part, it's a car graveyard that is a cash cow. It's been owned and operated for 23 years by Dan Rush.

People come looking for parts. 

So what is the most popular part that people come looking for? "Believe it or not, it's a sun visor," said Dan Rush.

Once the car is picked over, the rest is turned into scrap. So which is better money, the parts or scrapping the car?

"For us it's about 50 50," said Rush.

90% of the car can be recycled, and Dan makes several hundred bucks profit on every car here.

"We've been green before it was cool to be green," he said.

"When you look around when you say there's 800 cars here, there's 800 stories to be told," said Rush.

One of the stories here belongs to Ells and her Scion. Before it's put in the yard, they drain out all the fluids, oil, anti-freeze, brake fluid, transmission fluid, and gas.

"Yeah, it's all recyclable, we use the gas, I drive with the used gas," he said.

They recycle aluminum and steel from the tires, metals from the starters and alternators, the A/C compressor, the motor, and even wires from the dash.

"This is what comes out of the dash right here, and if you look at it, it's the copper, it's valuable," said Rush.

The car is then put on the lot and for the next 100 days mechanics and do it yourselfers will buy the parts they need. With very few exceptions, every car and truck on the road will eventually end up in a place  like this.

After just a week on the lot, Ells's Scion is unrecognizable.

It's as if a bunch of vultures came down and started picking stuff off this thing. 

"Yeah, vultures, we would like to call them customers," said Rush.

So what's the next step? "We're gonna crush it," he said.

"Yeah, some people like to call me Dr. Mo," said Mo Moore.

More like Doctor Death. "When I get it I pull out the heart which is the motor, the tranny," said Moore.

Mo wields a surgical instrument of destruction called a scorpion. Once he rips the motor out, the remains are tossed into the crusher on top of two other car corpses. In the end, the three cars stand just three feet tall.

"It's something like a cemetery; this is the last step for the car," he said.

The sun has set for this scion. The owners rarely get to see their car at the end of life, but FOX 10 invited Ells for a viewing.

"Oh wow, that is stripped, Jesus," said Ells.

There is one final part, the shredder. Water heaters, refrigerators, garbage bins, and cars end up in the clutches of the claw and in a matter of seconds it's shredded into bits and spewed out onto the frag pile. A mountain of metal and memories.

From there, the small hunks of metal are melted down and recycled, much of it is made into rebar, the metal skeleton under freeways and buildings.

So essentially you're driving over recycled cars every day.
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