Gray SUV on a tow truckOver 60 million automobiles were produced throughout the world in 2012, along with over 20 million trucks and commercial vehicles. Astronomical amounts of steel are used in this gigantic, worldwide manufacturing process, 25% of which is recycled. All of this recycled steel comes from somewhere, and all of these vehicles need to go somewhere at the end of their lives. This is where car crushers come in.

Car crushers perform an important task in the process of preparing derelict vehicles for their trip to the recycling plant. Salvageable parts, such as a used power brake booster, are removed before the car is crushed.  Crushing cars makes it possible to transport them much more cheaply and easily than if they were left whole, drastically improving the efficiency of the recycling process. Car crushers have been evolving and improving ever since they were first introduced, and today you can find a few different types in regular use.

The first types of car crushers to be built were stationary machines. They were originally built on the site where they would be used – typically a salvage yard – and never intended to move from that spot. These types of car crushers were often built with large magnetic arms used to pick up the vehicles and load them into the machine.

Today, portable car crushers have surpassed their stationary precursors in popularity. Portable car crushers have all the functionality of stationary machines, but can be moved from site to site with ease. These types are popular because they save a great deal of money. Instead of having to invest in a permanent, stationary car crusher, the owner of a junk yard can split the investment with the owners of other yards using a time-sharing agreement. This ensures that the machines will have minimal downtime and that everyone gets the most out of their investment. Besides, car crushers like to keep busy!

Stationary or portable, car crushers work on the same general principles, even if they go about the application of those principles in different ways. The average car crusher uses over 150 tons of force to do its job, and it generates this force using the force-multiplying properties of its hydraulic system.

Hydraulic systems use large motors to power pumps that push hydraulic fluid, an incompressible fluid that is usually a type of oil, to drive large cylinders. Applying force to differently sized cylinders can, when the proper combination of sizes is used, massively multiply the force of the pressure exerted on the other end. This is how car crushers crush, using large, hydraulically driven cylinders to create tons (literally) of pressure to flatten, and possibly cube or bale, vehicles.

Both portable and stationary car crushers can be made to work in different ways. Some car crushers simply turn vehicles into flat pancakes, while others use mechanical claw-type devices to turn them into neatly molded cubes for even easier transport. Other types are made with extra-large openings to accommodate trucks or busses. Whatever method may be used, the cars all end up the same after they’ve been through the recycling process.

By the time they reach the recycling plant, the cars are nothing but squished piles of metal. They were stripped of all their useful parts (like tires or used alternators) and hazardous materials (like batteries) before being crushed, so all that is left to do is chop them up for melting down. Massive sawing and hammering machines take over this job, leaving nothing but bits of metal to be magnetically separated into their ferrous and non-ferrous components before they’re ready for melting.

The end result is recycled steel, and many of the crushed cars go on to live again as the newest year’s model. Were it not for the ability to cheaply transport large numbers of cars at once, an ability that car crushers provide us with, the profit in recycling steel would fall dramatically, and the amount of recycled steel in the world would fall with it. For so much of the recycled steel that we enjoy today, we have the car crushers to thank.