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Toward Total Car Recycling

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Carmakers around the world are working with scrap recyclers and other groups to solve current car recycling problems and prevent future ones.

September/October 1992

Carmakers around the world are working with scrap recyclers and other groups to solve current car recycling problems and prevent future ones.


Kent Kiser is associate editor of Scrap Processing and Recycling.

Imagine if cars were 100-percent recyclable.  At the end of their useful lives, they could be easily disassembled, with most parts being resold as replacements or reused as feedstock for new car parts or raw material for nonautomotive applications. The remaining “clean” hulk could then be shredded, producing no auto shredder residue (ASR)—fluff.  The process would be an entirely closed-loop, zero-waste cycle.

While this scenario is still only a dream, automakers are working with scrap recyclers, dismantlers, parts suppliers, and researchers to achieve something closer to recycling perfection. Environmental improvement is no longer a cost of doing business for carmakers, it is their business. The threat of restrictive environmental legislation, the pressure to remain competitive with other automakers, and public demand for environmentally improved cars are all prompting carmakers to “go green.” In the words of one auto executive, carmakers must increasingly “take responsibility for the damage cars inflict on the world.”

In response, every major car manufacturer has initiated some type of design, disassembly, and/or recycling program.  For scrap recyclers, these efforts could mitigate current car recycling problems.

Fluff at the Forefront

Of course, car recycling isn’t totally problematic; it has its share of success stories.  In fact, nearly 30 million cars throughout the world are recycled every year, according to Karl-Heinz Ziwica, general manager of environmental engineering for BMW of North America Inc. (Montvale, N.J.).  Next to lead-acid batteries, cars are the world’s most recycled consumer product, achieving a recycling rate of approximately 93 percent.

Within each scrapped vehicle, however, 70 to 80 percent of its components are currently recycled, including ferrous and nonferrous metals, lead-acid batteries, catalytic converters, and used motor oil. The car recycling “movement,” therefore, is targeting the remaining 20 to 30 percent of automotive materials that end up in shredder fluff—primarily nonmetallic car materials such as plastics, glass, rubber, carpet, and dirt.

Of all fluff materials, automotive plastics—which account for one-third of ASR by weight—are receiving the most significant attention. Why this focus on plastics? Because, in part, they present the most promising opportunities for recycling. At the same time, they are a serious impediment to current car recycling efforts and represent a costly liability to shredder operators. The growing use of plastics in cars has reduced the quantity of metal in car hulks and increased the quantity of ASR generated, which, when added to rising per-ton disposal costs, have made car recycling far less profitable.  Moreover, a typical car contains 20 to 40 plastic resins that are usually incompatible for recycling together. Plastic parts can also be painted and/or contain adhesives, which further impedes their recycling.

If the auto shredding industry is to remain viable, recyclers say, plastics and other nonmetallic automotive materials must become more recyclable to reduce the quantity ofASR , and markets for the recovered materials must be developed.

Past Designs, Current Obstacles

The car recycling problem, and particularly the automotive plastic problem, requires a two-part answer:  one for cars already built—and many being built—and one for cars yet to be designed and built.

Today’s cars pose the most pressing and daunting challenges because, simply put, they were not designed for easy disassembly or recycling.  Still, carmakers are promoting several options to deal with the plastic parts and fluff from old cars. BMW AG ( Munich , Germany ), for example, has advanced a “cascade” model of car recycling procedures that encompasses—in order of preference—reuse of parts as spares or reconditioned replacements; direct material recycling;  chemical recycling; and energy recovery.

In the BMW scheme, plastic parts, if not resold as replacements, should be removed prior to shredding to reduce the potential amount of ASR . These parts can be processed, then remanufacured into new parts through particle bonding, injection molding, or compression molding.

Plastic bumpers are especially suited to such recycling. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. ( Tokyo ) is recycling polypropylene (PP) bumpers, using a technology that removes paint from the bumpers. The recovered plastic is used to make air ducts, rear bumper parts, foot rests, and transport pallets. The program, begun in Kanagawa , Japan , will be expanded throughout that country, the company says.

Nissan has initiated a similar program with its 875 dealerships in Germany , which divert an estimated 47,000 PP bumpers from German landfills each year. The company also plans to eventually recycle polyurethane bumpers and has reportedly developed a method for processing used automotive thermoplastics with glass fiber and powdered thermoplastic resin to produce a plastic sheet that can be stamped into a variety of new parts.

Two problems exist with direct recycling of car parts, however. First, points out Stuart Padnos, senior executive vice president of Louis Padnos Iron & Metal Co. (Holland, Mich.), “car parts will only be removed if there’s a payback,” and there are few consuming markets, and little or no margin, for recovered automotive plastics now. “The key issue is increasing the value of the automotive materials that aren’t currently recycled,” adds Sandy S. Labana, manager of the polymer science department of Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn , Mich. ). “We have to make those materials more valuable than the net costs of recovering and reprocessing them.”

The second problem is that less than a third of all plastics are suitable for reuse through direct material recycling, according to Horst M. Rothermel, director of applications development for the automotive polyurethane division of Bayer AG (Leverkusen, Germany). “Direct reuse of parts by material recycling is highly popular,” he notes, “but may not always be the most effective answer.”  Most of the time, says Labana, “the limiting factor is contamination such as mixing different polymers or recycling clean parts with those covered with paint or adhesives. We’re trying to reduce the problem in the future, but it’s not going to disappear.”

Chemical, or indirect, recycling approaches—the next step down BMW’s “cascade”—include hydrolysis, glycolysis, pyrolysis, and hydrogenation, which break plastic polymers into monomers and other molecular materials for reuse by the plastic and oil-refinery industries.  When applied to polyurethane parts, for example, the first two technologies recover liquid components that can be returned to the original production cycle, while the last two yield gas, oil, and a char.

Indirect recycling processes can be used on a limited number of polymers, including tereppphthalate, polyurethane, and polyamide, Labana notes. “You can produce a pure product using these processes,” he says, “and they offer more leeway on contamination than direct recycling methods.”  There are concerns, however, with the costs of such processes compared to direct methods.

While these direct and indirect recycling methods offer promise, there comes a time when “we sooner or later have to choose whether to dispose of plastic waste in landfills or by incineration,” asserts Rothermel.  “As regards landfills, space is getting rare and costs are rising. That’s why the ultimate solution for plastic waste management is waste-to-energy reclamation.”

The final stage of the BMW plan is energy recovery, which encompasses smoldering sintering, high-temperature gasification, and incineration in a rotary kiln or fluidized bed. The advantages of these process are that they exploit the petroleum content of plastics, and can consume large quantities of plastic residues. In the end, only an inert, organic residual ash reportedly would have to be landfilled.

Exploring Different Approaches

Other European automakers have approached the car recycling problem from different angles. In France, Peugeot SA Group (La Garenne-Colombes, France) has joined with Compagnie Francaise des Ferrailles, a scrap recycler, and Vicat, a cement maker, to establish a pilot car recycling plant near Lyon .  The $4-million, two-year venture, launched in June 1991, involves three processing “programs”—vehicle disassembly, shredding, and fluff treatment—all aimed at achieving a zero-waste recycling process.

After spent cars are drained of fluids, dismantled, and shredded, the remaining fluff is sent through several additional processing steps, including suctioning, magnetic/antimagnetic separation, and screening, to clean the material.  The purified fluff is then treated to produce pellets that reportedly can be used as a fuel for cement kilns or as a raw material in asphalt, insulation, and waterproofing materials.

Mercedes-Benz AG ( Stuttgart , Germany ) has taken a totally different approach, eliminating shredding and, therefore, the fluff problem altogether in its proposed metallurgical recycling system. Under the Mercedes plan, after all fluids are drained from scrapped cars, engines would be pulled and either reconditioned for resale or shredded alone. All batteries, catalytic converters, and copper-bearing wires, motors, and cables also would be dismantled, then, all recyclable plastic parts would be removed.

The remaining hulk, including the tires and some plastics, would be baled and fed into a natural-gas-fired steel smelter.  The plastics and other organics would reportedly combust and provide energy for the process, any heavy metals would enter the baghouse dust, and other residual materials would enter the slag, which could be used by the construction industry, the carmaker reports. In addition, the heat produced reportedly would be recirculated through the system.

Mercedes-Benz developed this system in a venture with Austrian steelmaker Voest-Alpine Stahl AG, launched in August 1990. The companies are currently testing the system in a pilot program.

Designing for the Future

Such projects as these have demonstrated to carmakers that it’s easier to build recyclability into new cars than to play a game of catch-up with old vehicles. “We have to deal with older cars and the materials and designs that existed in the past, but we don’t have to let that situation continue,” Labana says.  Hence, most auto recycling work is future-looking and based on two different but overlapping concepts—Design for Recycling[R] and design for disassembly.

Among the efforts included in these design concepts are:

  • easing the removal of automotive parts;
  • eliminating nonrecyclable or hazardous materials;
  • reducing the variety of plastics used in parts (carmakers reportedly draw from a spectrum of more than 120 different thermoplastics and thermosets);
  • avoiding parts that combine incompatible materials—such as plastics and metals—or making such parts easily separable from each other; and
  • making plastic parts easier to identify by resin type.

Progress on some of these points has been made already.  Most carmakers, for example, are identifying the resins used in plastic parts weighing more than 100 grams, stamping them according to codes developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers ( Pittsburgh ).  BMW has taken this a step further by developing a color-coded reference system that enables dismantlers to identify and separate different plastic parts in older-model cars, according to the company’s Ziwica. “The main difficulty in recycling cars lies in plastic parts identification,” he explains.

BMW has also opened a car disassembly plant in Landshut, Germany. Begun in June 1990, the operation is working to fulfill a variety of objectives related to future vehicle design. In addition to developing disassembly procedures and tools/equipment, the plant is being called on to help speed up and reduce costs of disassembly procedures. The plant is also supposed to develop an internal and external infrastructure to collect, store, and transport recovered components for reconditioning, resale, or recycling;  develop recycling guidelines for production to be used at BMW factories; and explore far-reaching waste management and recycling technologies for the auto industry.

As a further part of its design for disassembly and Design for Recycling [R] plans, the carmaker is working with existing private dismantlers and recyclers in Germany in an effort to arrange more than 100 authorized disassembly and recycling plants by 1995. “Using conservative measures, we plan to achieve 90-percent recyclability within the next 10 years,” Ziwica says.

In the United States , BMW of North America Inc. (Montvale, N.J.) is following the lead of its parent company.  In cooperation with the Automotive Dismantlers & Recyclers Association (Fairfax, Va.), the firm has launched a two-year pilot car recycling program, involving three U.S. auto dismantlers: Hunts Point Auto Parts (Bronx, N.Y.), Lakenor Auto Salvage (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.), and Michael Auto Parts (Orlando, Fla.).  When one of these firms receives a scrapped BMW, it drains all fluids, removes the lead-acid battery and air bag, dismantles all economically salvageable parts for resale or for use as raw materials by other industries, then ships the hulk to a shredder. To promote the program, BMW is offering BMW owners who return their old cars to these centers a $500 voucher that can be applied toward the purchase of a new or approved used BMW.  BMW of Canada Inc. reportedly plans to establish a similar dismantling project in that country.

Though such projects are laudable, as many point out, they have two major flaws. For one thing, the environmental benefits of Design for Recycling[R] and design for disassembly won’t be felt significantly for more than a decade, when new-model cars are retired.  Furthermore, while the time-consuming practice of complete car disassembly may be feasible—or required—in Europe , it may not work in the United States . “Disassembly is very expensive,” Labana notes. “It may be a technical option, but it isn’t an economically viable option.”

Two—or More—Heads Are Better Than One

In addition to their individual efforts, many carmakers have formed cooperative partnerships with other carmakers and/or automotive-related groups to share knowledge, work for a universal recycling solution, and prevent each other from having to reinvent the wheel.

In the United States, Detroit’s “Big Three”—Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., and Chrysler Corp.—have formed the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), which also includes participants of the scrap recycling, parts supply, plastic, and dismantling industries, as well as university and government research labs. Through the VRP, four working groups are addressing different automobile recycling issues: ASR , disassembly, design guidelines, and communications.  The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) (Washington, D.C.), which represents scrap recyclers on the VRP, is an active participant in three of the four working groups. “ISRI believes that only through a cooperative effort is success attainable,” says Herschel Cutler, the association’s executive director.

In the 1960s, cooperative work between carmakers, scrap recyclers, and the government helped solve the abandoned car problem, and a similar victory can be won regarding car recycling and shredder fluff today, automakers assert.

Overseas, six German carmakers are working together in a group called PRAVDA, which is conducting a feasibility study with dismantlers and plastic producers to examine car recycling technologies, logistics, and costs. In the United Kingdom , domestic automakers—including Rover, Vauxhall, Jaguar, and others—are addressing the issue through the Automotive Consortium on Recycling and Disposal. The British government is also getting involved. The country’s Department of Trade and Industry has established a research consortium, providing a grant of about $524,000 for examining the technical and commercial feasibility of reusing scrap automotive plastics, conducting bench studies of car recycling processes, and launching pilot projects to implement recycling procedures on a large scale.

The Legislative/Regulatory Threat

European automakers have been forced to move faster on car recycling issues than their U.S. counterparts due to stringent governmental measures and pressure from environmental groups.  In Germany, proposed laws would require automakers to accept their scrapped cars from the final owners at no charge, find ways to recycle or reuse automotive materials, establish a national network of car dismantling plants, and design new cars for total recyclability.  Another measure under consideration in Germany calls for shredder fluff to be reclassified from its current definition as a light waste to that of a special waste. According to German recycling executives, this could boost ASR disposal costs to the equivalent of more than $200 a ton, intensifying the need for immediate recycling solutions.

U.S. carmakers are free from such severe constraints—for now.  And one benefit of the VRP is that it sends a signal to the U.S. government that the domestic auto industry is addressing car recycling issues on its own, precluding the need for government involvement, says Victor H. Sussman Jr., director of the environmental quality office for Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.).

Nevertheless, a recent study by the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, reveals that most automotive experts polled expect vehicle recycling legislation to be enacted in the 1990s. No one knows what form this legislation might take, but many expect it to target material identification requirements, manufacturing and design constraints, or recycled-material use requirements. Plastics recycling will likely be key in any legislation, but mandates might also require a better labeling of ferrous components and their alloy content.

“I think we’ll see some kind of legislation in the next few years,” Labana says, pointing out that laws already exist for the handling of tires, lead-acid batteries, and freon.”My hope is that we can open a dialog with legislators and work with them so the legislation is something we can meet without too much disruption.”  Burdensome laws and regulations would only serve to increase automakers’ costs and reduce manufacturing flexibility, Sussman points out, adding his belief that if regulations are passed, they should be market-based, not command-and-control mandates.

Toward a Greener Future

In the end, carmakers, scrap recyclers, and other automotive-related groups want the same thing—to improve the recyclability of cars—but they want it for different reasons.  Recyclers, for one, want automakers to reduce or eliminate materials that contaminate or increase the volume of shredder fluff.  They’re also concerned about some critical issues that persist despite automaker recycling programs. “While these concepts and undertakings are to be applauded, the use of the phrase `recyclable’ points out a continuing issue,” Cutler observes.  “Will the material indeed be recycled?  Is there a market for it?  Without a market for materials that are collected and/or separated, there’s no way to ensure that what’s `recyclable’ will, in fact, be recycled.”

Carmakers, on the other hand, see the situation this way, Labana says: “Recycling is good and we should do it, but a car’s quality in terms of strength and durability should not be compromised.”  Put another way, automakers question whether reusable parts will meet the safety, performance, and longevity standards of virgin parts.  They’re also concerned that creating more-recyclable cars will add to production costs, hamstringing the automaking industry and adding to new car prices.  As Rothermel points out, “The bottom line for automotive recycling is to achieve optimum ecological benefits at an acceptable cost.”

Car recycling is indeed an intricate balancing act and, as BMW notes, “neither the motorist nor industry nor the government will be able to achieve genuine environmental protection for nothing.”  All parties will have to compromise on some points. “There’s no free lunch,” Sussman says. “There are trade-offs all over.”

All parties agree that solutions to the current recycling problems will only be reached through cooperative work between all the groups involved.  As one auto executive sums up, “It’s not easy being in the car business these days,” adding more succinctly, “It’s not easy being green.”

Car Recycling Picks Up Speed

Improving the recyclability of cars is a global challenge—and goal—for the auto industry, and every automobile manufacturer has some recycling-related projects in the works or on the drawing board. “The car of the future will not be measured alone by its motoring comfort, safety, economy, and ease of service,” BMW notes. “Rather, designers are now also required to build cars that can be recycled as completely and economically as possible.”

Here’s what some automakers are doing on car recycling.

  • Volkswagen AG (Wolfsburg, Germany), which opened a car recycling plant in Leer, Germany, in January 1990, uses no lead or heavy metals in its car paints, uses no asbestos in its brake pads and clutch linings, plans to use non-chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) coolant in its air-conditioners by 1993, and is designing its new cars for greater recyclability. “All thermoplastics that are used by Volkswagen are recyclable,” the firm says.
  • Peugeot has incorporated Design for Recycling[R] concepts into the latest models of its Citroen ZX and Peugeot 106.  It has pledged to increase the recycling of automotive plastic parts by increasing its use of resins that can be easily recycled, using one type of plastic for major components such as dashboards, limiting the variety of plastics used, marking all plastic parts so they can be identified and recovered, and designing parts for easy disassembly.
  • Renault has set up an experimental car recycling operation at its Flins, France, plant.
  • Mazda Motor Corp. and its German subsidiary have launched a project to collect used or damaged plastic parts—mainly bumpers—and recycle them into new bumpers and splash shields.
  • Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has vowed to mark its plastic parts by resin type, design its new cars for disassembly, recycle materials from older-model cars, and develop materials that won’t emit toxins when incinerated.
  • General Motors’s new Saturn models feature recyclable plastic body panels.
  • Chrysler’s prototype of the Dodge Neon has recyclable plastic interior and exterior panels. The firm’s new Grand Cherokee is reportedly 90-percent recyclable and features no cadmium in its fasteners, no asbestos in its brakes, and no CFCs in its air-conditioning systems. Chrysler’s overall environmental principles center on promoting the efficient use of energy, conserving resources and preventing pollution through recycling, and continuously improving its cars to reduce their environmental impact.
  • Ford has commissioned design projects at two U.S. universities and established a pilot disassembly plant in Niehl, Germany. This plant will help Ford develop design guidelines in such areas as material selection and compatibility, attachment methods, material coding, and design for disassembly. The firm’s environmental policy focuses on conducting environmental performance audits of its plants, promoting waste minimization. —K.K.

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