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A 100-acre auto (recycler) reveals the circle of (car) life

Whether you think it’s heaven or hell, one thing’s for sure – this is where cars come to die 

As a teen, I remember limping a friend’s old winter beater to a nearby wrecker’s yard because we heard they’d give you 20 bucks for the heap if the battery was good. As the thing had finally kicked it with a nearly new battery, we realized this was as good as it was likely to get. And it was true; the only catch was they told us we had to remove the battery, and the acid burned several holes in my jeans, which were worth twice as much as we were getting for the battery.

Much has changed in the auto recycling industry – including that name. You can still find some old-school yards, but to be profitable, the business had to change. A visit to Plazek Auto Recyclers in Caistor Centre, Ont., taught me just how much.

Plazek’s is one of the largest in Canada, 100 acres of sheer bliss for any auto hound, but also for the
wholesalers and restorers who have a seemingly endless supply to choose from. Started in 1965 by Ed Plazek, it’s now run by his son, Joe. Keeping it all in the family, Joe’s five kids work here, too. Plazek Senior began with one car, initially bought as a project and parked in a field. When he was offered what he paid for the car by someone who only wanted the fenders, a business was born.

Car parts are harvested in a highly organized manner at Plazek’s. As the designated receiver for several insurance companies, cars are dropped off in the front yard. They are categorized according to damage, mileage and make, model and year. Vehicles can be held for insurance adjusters and some might be claimed for repair; those destined to be written off enter into a networked bidding system that happens at noon every day. Based on the results and Joe’s bids, some cars stay and some will go. Recyclers know what they have demand for, and scour their sources accordingly.

The majority of cars that enter Plazek’s Auto Recyling are from accidents and insurance write-offs.

Winter months are peak for destroyed cars. Up to 10 a day can find their way to the yard, and Plazek’s typically processes about 80 to 100 cars a month for dismantle. Varying prices for scrap also impact the entire industry. When scrap metal prices were at $300/tonne, Plazek would see more runners: people buying up junkers on Kijiji and hoping to turn them over for a fast buck. Today, with scrap prices hovering around $135 a tonne, the runners have disappeared.

Real estate may be all about location, but car recycling is all about the car. Before heading into the garage manned by up to six mechanics, the vehicle is assessed for its value. Newer high-end cars, those in demand and those with a lot of harvestable options take priority. It can take as little as three hours to break a car apart, or as much as a day for one of those more valuable finds. Don’t show up with your own crowbar, however; if you insist on picking your own part in the yard, you’ll be accompanied and there is a $25 minimum fee.

Some cars will become rebuilds. Many will be stripped and every part categorized into a vast computer system manned from the front office. All fluids are drained into a separate holding area via drain tables, and bolts are collected for scrap. Engines and transmissions are removed to be stored in a huge warehouse. The yard – those 100 acres – is set up in rows as uniform as any cornfield. Those rows are tagged by letter, and cars are deposited with pertinent information lettered on the windshields. A phone call comes into the front, inventory is scanned by computer, and pricing is established according to condition and availability.

A massive warehouse, 930 square metres (10,000 sq.-ft.), stores meticulously tagged engine blocks. “Really good engines can be here forever,” says Plazek, “and some have a huge turnover rate.” I ask what they run through the most of, and he doesn’t hesitate. “Ford 5.4-litre truck engines,” he laughs. He also admits to having a 1979 Pinto block way in the back, after selling the seat to a B.C. collector for 200 bucks.

The engines and transmissions are stored in a warehouse so they can be sold as complete units to customers. Some of these engines can sell for up to $2,500.

When a car has been broken down and parted out, it eventually ends up stacked high in the rear of the yard, awaiting the compactor. Here the final components will again be sorted and recycled, ready to start a new life from the ashes of the old.

It’s his oldest son, Mark, ushering in the new era at age 30 along with his three brothers and sister. Where Joe Plazek took over and updated from his own father, he is now proud to see his own kids moving the business in new directions. He notes the industry is commodity-based and basically recession proof; if they can meet supply, there will always be demand. Those new advancements include mastering the changing landscape of the auto industry, with hybrids and electrics being introduced and the new skill set involved in processing them into pieces.

Staring out at the vast expanse of row upon endless row of carcasses, it’s hard not to imagine some of the trauma many of them have gone through. Car graveyards have always held their own special feeling (well, for me they have), and I ask Joe Plazek if he hasn’t heard some stories, or if he has some ghosts.

“Oh, we have ghosts all right,” he chuckles. “The ghosts hop our fences at night and steal parts.” It seems no matter how much security you put on a yard, covering this much area in such a rural location is never a sure bet.

Even the scavengers are part of the circle of car life.

By Lorraine Sommerfeld,



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