Since old or expired license plates are made of aluminum, they are infinitely recyclable or reusable.

license-plate-recycling.jpg Perhaps you bought a new car this year, or moved to a different state. Maybe you were looking for a new way to show support for your favorite sports team, animal species, children’s program or national park. There are many reasons people end up with spare license plates at home, and there are many good ways to recycle them or reuse them in craft projects. We share some of our favorite ideas below.

What are license plates made of?

Modern license plates are made of aluminum, which is easy to recycle. Manufacturers simply melt the metal down and cast it into new items. Hundreds of products are made of aluminum — everything from silverware to cars — so there is no shortage of demand for it. There is a very good reason to recycle aluminum as well. Manufacturing the metal from virgin materials takes a tremendous amount of energy. On the other hand, aluminum producers estimate that they can reduce their carbon emissions by 95% when they use recycled aluminum in their products. In many states, license plates are made by prison inmates who stamp them out in special workshops designed to teach basic job skills. Besides giving prisoners a source of income and something to do, the practice lowers the cost of manufacturing license plates for states. License plates first came into being in 1903 as a way to register cars and tax drivers. At various times throughout history they were made of steel, tin, porcelain, even soy-based fiberboard during World War II. Until the 1940s, drivers got a new set of license plates with the date stamped into the metal every year. Georgia was the first state to add decals with the year so plates could be used over and over again.

How to recycle license plates

Your state’s vehicle licensing department (often called a DMV) should provide specific instructions on acceptable ways to recycle license plates. Generally, drivers have several options to choose from:
  • Return old license plates to a vehicle licensing office in person. The downside to doing this is it can mean a long wait to see someone at the counter. We all know how fun the DMV is!
  • Mail them to a vehicle licensing office. Each state should have a mailing address for returning old license plates on its website.
  • Put them in an aluminum recycling bin at your local recycling center. If you choose this option, it is very important to remove all the month and year decals from the license plate and destroy it by bending it, scratching it up, or cutting it into pieces. If someone steals a valid plate and puts it on his or her car, the police will contact you if a crime is committed with that vehicle.
In some cities (for example, Huntsville, AL, and White Plains, NY) you can place old aluminum license plates in your curbside bin. But, these programs are rare, so ask local recycling company if it takes license plates before putting them in your bin. Make sure you check with your state licensing office to see if it has special requirements for certain types of plates. In Washington state, for example, the only way to recycle license plates for veterans and people with disabilities is to bring them to a vehicle licensing office. Normal plates can be recycled using the methods described above.

License plates as collector’s items

Plenty of people collect license plates, and they are looking for more than vintage items. While rare, older license plates are likely to sell for the most money, it is possible to sell more modern plates. Some collectors are interested in gathering a plate from every county in a state. Artists may need plates with certain colors for projects. Check with antique stores in your area to see if they will take older plates. eBay is a great place to sell old license plates, but not new ones. The online auction site prohibits the sale of “current vehicle license plates and plates that look like current license plates.” If you want to dispose of newer plates you may need to give them to friends or network with local artists and collectors to see if they are interested.

License plates for craft projects

Old license plates can be used for a variety of craft projects. Purses are very popular, but a quick look on Pinterest also shows license plates made into wall art, birdhouses and journals. Another fun idea is to cut the numbers and letters out of license plates and use them to create signs, clocks and keychains. They have the fun, funky appearance of a collage. Fair warning: The metal edges of cut-up license plates will be sharp, so please be careful when you handle them. License plates make beautiful artwork, too. The work of Aaron Foster, who uses vintage plates to make amazing wall hangings (including a map of the U.S. made with license plates from each state), is one of my personal favorites.