Automotive recycler Mike Swift’s story begins like that of many recycling industry veterans’: His grandfather started picking and selling scrap in the 1940s, with his father working for and eventually taking over the family business in the ’70s before Swift himself followed in their footsteps, joining the family company, then known as Swift’s Auto Salvage, in 1979.

Like many recyclers, Swift held nearly every position at his family’s business prior to assuming the role of vice president. Early in his career, his roles included delivery boy, commissioner, pulling parts at night and counting inventory, Swift says, adding, “All the odd jobs.”

Five years after his first day on the clock, Swift says the Des Moines, Iowa-based auto recycling company was the first in the state to install a Hollander Electronics Book computer system. This is an electronic version of the Hollander Interchange, a numbering system that indexes which parts are interchangeable among vehicles and lists comparable part options for almost every car or light truck on the road. Rather than flipping through pages in books, recyclers could confirm parts availability and information at the click of a button.

“That was a game-changer in the industry when we got computers,” Swift says.

While automotive recyclers have had quick access to complete vehicle listings, including year, make, model, body style and engine, for decades, that hasn’t been enough. Auto recyclers have been advocating for years to receive access to data related to original equipment manufacturers’ (OEMs’) parts identification numbers.

Banking on a bill

Without access to crucial OEM parts data, Swift predicts it could be the end for auto recyclers.

“If we don’t get this data from the manufacturers, we’re just not going to be around anymore because there’s no way we can match parts to cars,” he says “They’re making too many parts too fast that we’re not going to be able to keep up.”

He says Swift’s Trails End’s computer resource system currently tracks about 185 parts. Meanwhile, each car today has about 30,000 total parts.

“Parts and cars are going to continue to get more complicated, and the only way to identify the parts that are on each particular vehicle is to be able to decode the VIN (vehicle identification number), and have the VIN tell us what is exactly on the car,” Swift says.

“We’re providing a part for the consumer that [the OEM] probably doesn’t make anymore; it’s an OEM part. If the OEMs were smart, they would use some of our parts, and they could buy them back from us and certify them.” – Mike Swift

Auto recyclers have been banking on what is currently a bill in the U.S. House of Representative: HR 5967. The bill, introduced Sept. 8, 2016, to the 114th Congress and referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, aims to, among other goals, improve access to motor vehicle information. The proposed legislation would require automakers to make publicly available the OEM part names, descriptions and numbers of a vehicle’s defective components that are subject to a recall.

Swift acknowledges that recyclers cannot sell parts that have been recalled. Yet, if they aren’t aware that the part has been recalled, “How are we supposed to not sell them?” he questions.

Therefore, Swift says, recyclers should have electronic access to this information.

Having access to the build sheet information, which lists details from engine size and transmission to radiator type and shocks, is vital, he says. It’s among the most important issues for auto recyclers today.

“We need this information,” Swift says.

Working hand in hand

From October 2015 through October 2016, Swift served as president of the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), Manassas, Virginia. In the acknowledgement of Swift being named ARA president in early October 2015, the association described him as “extremely active in the industry as a cutting-edge automotive recycler and leader in his community.”

During his time as ARA president, Swift visited 25 auto recycling facilities across the country, where he saw firsthand the difficulties other recyclers are dealing with. Many in the industry are struggling, that’s for sure, he says. “It’s scary times,” Swift adds.

He also attended the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency in Arlington, Virginia, in March 2016. There, he sat in the workshop titled “The Use of Life Cycle Concepts in Supply Chain Management to Achieve Resource Efficiency.” Swift voiced his concern at the meeting that one of the biggest issues auto recyclers face is obtaining information from OEMs about parts.

Often, he told attendees, manufacturers think of recyclers as competition instead of as teammates. A cordial working, even familial, relationship is one Swift says he desires.

Auto recyclers in general want OEMs to “embrace us,” Swift says. “We want to be an option.”

He continues, “That’s our ultimate goal: to not be enemies with the OEMs, even though they bad mouth us every quarter. We’re the little brother, little sister, cousin in the room; we’re the same family, but you won’t let us sit at the big table.”

To the OEMs, Swift says, if given a seat at the table, “We’ll make you proud.”

Manufacturers belittle used parts, Swift says. They use phrasing like “junk parts” to make them seem unappealing, unsafe and not worth purchasing. “Instead of thinking of us as competition, they should welcome us,” he says.

At the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency meeting, Swift shared how partnerships are important to achieve success throughout the supply chain, especially at the end of life.

Working hand in hand with the auto recycling industry could give the OEMs bragging rights, Swift says.

John Bradburn, global manager of waste reduction at Detroit-based General Motors (GM), also attended the G7 Alliance on Resource Efficiency meeting. According to notes from the workshop on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) website, available at www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-09/documents/g7_us_workshop_summary_proceedings_ final.pdf, Bradburn questioned how long manufacturers should keep supplying parts for old cars and when they should rely on recyclers to provide that function.

Bradburn and Swift were panelists at the session “Life Cycle Thinking Exercise: Creating a Vision for the Resource-Efficient Vehicle (Product or Service) of the Future.”

Bradburn noted that the average age of cars on the road today is a record 11.5 years. That increased life, he said, according to the EPA summary of the discussion, means more engagement with the collision industry and with the repair and maintenance industry, which calls for new partnerships.

Companies like GM could promote themselves by working with recyclers, Swift says. He offers an example where GM helps to fix someone’s eight-year-old car with used parts from an auto recycler, highlighting how much they saved the customer while still using OEM-made parts.

“We’re providing a part for the consumer that [the OEM] probably doesn’t make anymore; it’s an OEM part,” Swift says. “If the OEMs were smart, they would use some of our parts and they could buy them back from us and certify them.”

Money talks

Detailing how much money people could save by purchasing used OEM parts rather than buying new is worthwhile. Swift says new anti-lock brake systems (ABS) that can cost upwards of $4,000 from the OEM can cost as little as $100 at Swift’s Trails End.

These savings can help to change people’s preconceptions of auto salvage yards, he says. “The mom or dad who takes their kids to soccer practice or to work, they don’t have the money to spend $4,000. But they have $100,” Swift says.

He and many other auto recyclers are looking to Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who sponsored HR 5967.

Swift adds, “Adam Kinzinger sees it and knows what we’re going through. He knows our trials and tribulations and knows what we sell. That’s why we’re doing this legislativewise because manufacturers didn’t want to offer this out for nothing.”

Auto recyclers will be paying close attention to HR 5967 in the 115th Congress, with hopes of potential partnerships rather than continued exclusion.

The author is associate editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at mworkman@gie.net.