The rate at which cars are scrapped in the UK has halved since the Covid-19 pandemic
A more intelligent approach to disassembly could be the answer to parts shortages in the existing car parc
‘Deproduction’ sounds like a mis-spelling in a biology lesson, but it’s what one vehicle salvaging company has started doing in Poole, Dorset.
Think of it as car production in reverse. Mounted on wheeled carriers, end-of-life cars travel along steel tracks, pausing at a series of four work stations where technicians dismantle them, placing their components in large hoppers. These are then wheeled to another area, where they’re checked, catalogued, cleaned and photographed prior to being sold to bodyshops, garages and the public.
It’s vehicle salvaging with a difference. Rather than mindlessly eviscerating old motors with hydraulic cutters and dropping the disembowelled carcasses into a crusher for bailing, the recycling approach taken by Charles Trent Ltd is methodical and surgical. There’s still an old shell to dispose of, but even this is crushed by a machine powered by solar energy captured on the roof of the firm’s warehouse.
Charles Trent isn’t alone in treating end-of-life vehicles this way. Other firms, such as ASM Auto Recycling of Thame in Oxfordshire, carefully strip, catalogue and sell parts too. The differences are Charles Trent’s strictly timed deproduction lines (a car is stripped in 15 minutes) and, at the end of them, the packaging area, where the checked parts are boxed up.
The idea isn’t new. France’s Indra was among the first to develop and adopt the approach, many years ago. However, Charles Trent is the only salvage firm to have implemented it in the UK.
It has required a huge investment and a massive new warehouse to accommodate the lines, work stations and rows of parts-storage shelves that dwarf anything at Ikea – and Charles Trent isn’t stopping there. Although the Poole plant only opened in August last year, it plans to have six in operation across the UK over the next five years.
With all of them running, it will process around 275,000 cars and recover three million parts per year. The Poole site alone should harvest 5500 parts per week.
“Demand is enormous,” says Marc Trent, the firm’s CEO. “Before Covid, we were exporting 30% of the parts, but now it’s down to 10%, because of the shortage of scrap cars in the UK and the shortage of new parts.”
Cars arrive on Charles Trent transporters for initial assessment – the first of nine stages on their journey from banger to box (see right). Category A write-offs (cars that must be crushed and their parts never reused) and those more than 20 years old are rejected.
Sourcing cars is a competitive business. Before the pandemic, around two million cars were scrapped in the UK per year. Today it’s half that.
When all four of the deproduction lines at the Poole site are running, around 100 vehicles per day will be processed. Already, with just a couple of them in action, the plant is operating double shifts.
Trent walks me down one of them, at one point inviting me to have a crack at removing a Ford Galaxy’s windscreen wipers and scuttle panel – without damaging them. Unbolting the wipers is easy, getting them off the arms is not. The scuttle panel needs a few hefty applications of a large lever.
Just like on a production line, there are mechanical handlers that can turn a car through 90deg, allowing technicians to access mounts, exhaust systems and suspension assemblies.
Further along the line is the panel grading area, where doors, tailgates and bonnets are checked for imperfections and any marks and dents recorded to form part of the sales description.
Nearby is the engine repair area, which is turning out six functioning units per day.
The warehouse can store up to 7000 panels and carries 71,000 parts, with this total rising by 1000 per month. That’s a lot of parts, each with its own number, faithfully recorded at every step.
Around 2500 parts, all of them ‘certified recycled’ components, are sold each week, the majority via eBay to private buyers, who can save up to 70% compared with buying new.
The traceability of parts and their accurate grading and identification are key to the Charles Trent operation and one of the requirements of being a certified vehicle recycler, recognised by the Vehicle Recyclers Association.
Insurers, who buy many of Charles Trent’s recovered parts (many policies permit them to repair damaged cars using recycled parts, although not any that are safety-related), require proof that the part is no older than the car it’s to be fitted to, since the car must be restored to the position it was in prior to an accident.
Fitting used parts doesn’t guarantee a drop in premiums, however, because after their reconditioning or repainting, some parts are no cheaper than new. Instead, where the scheme helps is in plugging supply gaps, so helping to get cars back on the road sooner, and in burnishing insurers’ green credentials.
On that last point, it’s clear that reusing a perfectly good part has to be better for the planet than buying a new one – even if it means those pleasurable days of finding it yourself in a breaker’s yard are numbered.