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What happens to that trusted old warhorse – the forklift truck – when it’s scrapped, and how elements are resurfacing in many unexpected places.

The forklift dealers are the heroes of the first phase of scrapping and recycling. “The forklift truck dealers are very resourceful and recycle as much as possible themselves,” explained Duncan Nealon, Chairman of the Fork Lift Truck Association. A truck that is returned to the dealer for scrap will be broken down bit by bit for spares. Anything that can be reused and recycled, such as gearboxes or drive motors, will be kept, repaired or remanufactured, and then put back into use. Dealers are the masters of recycling viable components.

EU regulations are then very strict for certain streams of waste, each of which is sent to a specialist company to be dealt with. So, engine oil and hydraulic oil are drained from the carcass by the dealers and sent for disposal, while batteries and catalytic converters, containing a number of hazardous components, are also sent to companies with the capability to recycle and dispose of them

What is left is essentially the scrap metal – the chassis and the counterweight with the odd extra such as wiring, seat material and straps – and this then goes to a scrap metal dealer.

That’s the last a forklift user or dealer will see of it. Or is it? Let’s now look a bit deeper below the surface and see what happens next.

Scrap metal

Scrap metal enters what can be described as a pyramid industry with small companies at the bottom and large multinationals at the top. Explained simply, the scrap metal starts its progress at a shredding plant where materials are sorted then broken and shredded.

The next step uses huge magnets to extract the iron and steel from non-ferrous metals such as copper and aluminium, as well as what Howard Bluck, Technical Director at the British Metals Recycling Association, describes as ‘shredder fluff’. Further separation can be achieved manually, or by using electrical currents, high pressure air flow and liquid floating systems. Iron, steel and non-ferrous metals are then compacted into bales and sent for   processing into new raw materials. Other items such as cloth and paper are baled for use elsewhere.

Although theoretically most metals can be continually recycled, there is always the risk that small amounts of other materials such as copper wiring are still attached to the metal when it is magnetically separated. This leads to so-called ‘tramp elements’ entering the steel melt, and these can ultimately change the characteristics of the final steel output.

“And once you get a particular percentage of copper in steel you start to get fissures and fractures at the microscopic level around the grain boundaries of the copper embedded in the steel,” Howard said. Ultimately, there will be a point at which the steel can no longer be used for high-quality products, and one of the next major steps in improving the recycling process, he believes, will be discussing how to tackle this quality issue.

Your forklift’s new life

So, where might materials from your old forklift resurface?

  • Steel is sold on to the steel industry, melted down and turned into raw material. It could surface in a myriad of new products ranging from high-quality construction steel through to knives and forks, and nuts and bolts.
  • Copper is reused in all types of electrical equipment, as well as in brass and copper products such as saucepans.
  • Batteries

Constituents such as lead, cadmium, nickel and lithium are separated and purified then used as a raw material for other products including new batteries. The acid is separated and treated for reuse or converted into other products such as gypsum which is then used in construction.

Plastics from batteries or from the forklift carcass are converted into pellets and recycled as a raw material which is used in many products including new batteries.

  • Catalytic converters

In addition to the regular metals, catalysts palladium, platinum and rhodium are either recycled for further use in the next generation of cats or:

Palladium can be used in some dental fills and crowns, and in the ceramic capacitors found in laptop computers and mobile phones.

Platinum is often made into jewellery, so it could be around your neck or on your finger.

Rhodium can also be used to coat optic fibres and optical mirrors, and for crucibles, thermocouple elements and headlight reflectors.

  • Oil can be used in a number of ways:

As combustion fuel in, for example, blast furnaces and space heaters.

It can be distilled into marine and diesel fuels through a process somewhat akin to oil refining.

Some oils will be suitable for full refining and this is determined by testing. During the refining process, all heavy metals, dirt and chemical impurities are stripped out. Part of the process involves dehydrating the oil and capturing ethylene glycol which is sometimes reused in recycled antifreeze.

  • Seatbelts can be shredded, or bagged and sold by weight, and there are innumerable ways that craftspeople are able to convert them into new items. For example, they can be made into bags, wallets and even pet leads and harnesses.

It is worth noting that around the globe 40% of our raw material needs are now supplied from recycled materials, and that figure is increasing as we develop new ways of processing waste.

A surprising amount of a scrapped forklift reappears in everyday products, and these could be anything from an expensive engagement ring through to false teeth, and from the steel core of a high-rise building to the components in your mobile phone.

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