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Economics vs. Recycling

Automotive plastics supply lightweight “green” benefits, but recyclers are still up in the air on how to justify their widespread end-of-life recycling

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By Mike Verespej

Economics vs. Recycling

Automotive plastics supply lightweight “green” benefits, but recyclers are still up in the air on how to justify their widespread end-of-life recycling

Previous Article      Next Article


By Mike Verespej

Economics vs. Recycling

Automotive plastics supply lightweight “green” benefits, but recyclers are still up in the air on how to justify their widespread end-of-life recycling

Previous Article      Next Article


By Mike Verespej

Multiple hang-ups are limiting widespread auto plastics recycling.

Multiple hang-ups are limiting widespread auto plastics recycling.

Old, battered bumper fascia are plentiful sources of recyclable plastics.

Old, battered bumper fascia are plentiful sources of recyclable plastics.

GM reuses its scrap Chevrolet Volt battery covers for screech-owl nesting boxes at various Wildlife Habitat Council-certified sites, like this one in Michigan (photo courtesy of General Motors).

GM reuses its scrap Chevrolet Volt battery covers for screech-owl nesting boxes at various Wildlife Habitat Council-certified sites, like this one in Michigan (photo courtesy of General Motors).

There are roughly 300 pounds (140 kg) of plastics, on average, used in each car and truck. But except for some bumpers, battery cases, and dashboards, very little of that plastic is currently recycled at end-of-life.

“Although the proportion of plastics used in vehicle production has increased in recent years, the proportion of plastics recovered and recycled from end-of-life vehicles has not,” according Green Vehicle Disposal, an automotive recycler network. And that’s true whether you’re talking about the USA or Europe—even though slightly more plastics from vehicles are recycled in Europe because of government mandates.

As a result, most of the plastics in the 27 million vehicles (15 million of them in the USA) that reach the end of their lives each year wind up as part of the automotive shredder residue (ASR) that ends up in a landfill. There are a number of reasons for this:

But the overriding reason is simply that the economics aren’t there yet for the end-of-life recycling of plastics on vehicles—except for large, easily identifiable parts such as instrument panels, battery cases, and bumpers. And even the bumpers that are recycled are mostly parts with blemishes and defects that OEMs send to recycling companies—not the used parts that end up with auto dismantlers.

“Automotive recycling is alive and well, but the pre-industrial and pre-consumer stage is where it’s at,” says Adrian Merrington, senior associate scientist at the Michigan Molecular Institute and technical lead at Midland Compounding and Consulting, both located in Midland, Michigan, USA.

The challenge and stumbling block at the post-consumer end-of-life stage “is the whole question of ease of disassembly,” he says. “Would you spend five minutes to pull out a small plastic screw?” asks Merrington. “And, even if you do, are you going to get enough to fill up a truck? If not, you can’t justify the cost, and that’s why everything just gets crushed together and ends up as ASR.

“There are also a whole lot of issues in using post-consumer plastic auto parts,” he adds. “What is the condition of the material at end-of-life? Can you amass enough of a single or similar type of plastics in one region?”

Moreover, “You would need to invest in new technology and separation equipment, and where is the business case to do that?” asks Susan Kozora, engineering manager in the Materials Engineering Department of International Automotive Components (IAC) in Southfield, Michigan. “It’s very labor-intensive [to recycle plastics on cars], and there is no legislation [in the USA] to push it like in Europe.”

David Wagger, director of environmental management for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) in Washington, D.C., agrees. “The biggest problem is that it still is too labor-intensive to pull many of the plastic components off. I’m just not aware of that happening to any great extent,” he says. “It is just not economical.”

He explains: “You also have to make sure you have enough volume of the material, and that there is a market that wants the material. In theory, you could recycle plastics from autos, but at the end of the day the question is whether there is a market willing to buy the material at a price over and above your cost to recover it.”


A Potential Revenue Stream?

Still, many people—including Wagger—believe that recovering plastics from ASR represents the next potential revenue stream for companies that dismantle autos, separate the metals, and create the ASR that now goes to landfill.

For starters, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleared away in April 2013 what had been a regulatory roadblock that prevented the recycling of more of the plastics in ASR. But the expected investment in additional optical sorting equipment by auto shredder firms has yet to materialize because of a variety of economic factors.

“It’s still early in the game,” explains Wagger. “Because oil prices have dropped so precipitously in the last year, it’s just poor timing because virgin plastic prices are cheap compared to a year ago. So the market is a drag on doing it right now.”

That’s also how Mike Biddle sees the current situation. Biddle is CEO of Material Solutions Inc. in Walnut Creek, California, USA, and founder and director of MBA Polymers in Worksop, UK. “Every major automotive shredder company in the U.S. is interested in recycling the plastics that are in ASR,” says Biddle.

“But the economics is still a stumbling block in the U.S.—because everything is driven by economic incentives, as opposed to Europe where there are mandates and regulations. So, in the U.S., it comes downs to how much value can you get for the plastics you recover from the waste stream versus what it costs you to get rid of it,” he explains.

“You have to be able to recoup enough value to pay for your investment, and right now plain old economics is holding it back because metal prices are down. Shredder companies are not flush with cash, so they are holding back on their investments.

“But when the economic climate improves, they all have their eyes on what they can do to recover that plastic,” asserts Biddle, “because the ratio of plastics to metals in cars in going up and that plastic is inherently more valuable—on a par with the aluminum that’s recovered.”

Plus, there’s a lot of it. An estimated 10 billion pounds (4.5 billion kg) of ASR is landfilled each year by the approximately 300 shredder companies operating in the USA—with roughly 3.5 billion pounds (1.6 billion kg) of that being plastic, according to the ISRI. (The rest is glass, rubber, wood, foam, tramp metal, wire, fibers, sand, and dirt.)

“There is a lot of untapped plastics waste out there in ASR,” says Biddle. “And there is technology that exists and works today to separate it…. It’s only a matter of time until it becomes economically feasible to recycle it.”


Problems Seeking Solutions

Yet numerous challenges lie ahead.

“The single biggest problem preventing greater recycling of the plastics in autos is the collection and then separation of the various types of plastics used,” says Bo Rhudy, vice president of plastics fabricator Cambo Inc., in Commerce Township, Michigan.

“The challenges that must be overcome are how to separate the different types of polymers economically, because the labor costs are high, and how to collect enough volume to make recycling worthwhile,” says Rhudy. “That’s why, for the most part, you only see bumpers and battery cases being recycled.

“When virgin polypropylene reached 90 cents [per pound] the last three years, I thought that an effort to separate the PP content from autos would start, because PP is the largest volume polymer used in cars and trucks,” says Rhudy. “But it did not. So I think the only way to make it happen in the U.S. is to have the government [mandate it like] they did with fuel mileage requirements.”

A research paper published last October in the open access journal Materials outlined many of the obstacles to recycling plastics from vehicles. The study pointed out that many of the plastics and composites in automotive applications are heterogeneous and, therefore, difficult to separate for recycling, and that thermoset materials used on vehicles “cannot be melted down and recycled due to their permanent cross-link structure.”

In addition, the current infrastructure is set up for metals recovery. That is, automotive recycling starts with a dismantler who removes components that have a high-enough market value to be resold. The rest of the vehicle is then sent to a shredding operation, with the steel and ferrous metals separated out by magnets and the non-ferrous metals recovered next. The remaining material, the ASR, has a plastics content of 15-45%, with a typical range of 30-40%, according to the ISRI.

“To further segregate and recycle the plastic materials, a change in infrastructure will be required,” said the study. “It is just not economical to improve or develop infrastructure for new technologies if no future revenue is expected to be generated…. Based on current markets and economics, any dismantling operation [beyond] what currently takes place will likely require a subsidy to compensate for the economic loss that would be incurred.”


Signs of Progress

But even with all those challenges, companies and organizations are working to find solutions. About 15 months ago, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Argonne National Laboratory, the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council, and the Vehicle Recycling Partnership of USCAR (a consortium of automotive OEMs) joined forces on a five-year, multi-million-dollar cost-shared R&D project that will focus on the development and demonstration of technologies to recover and recycle automotive materials at the end-of-life within the existing recycling infrastructure.

“Together as a team, we can lead the development of viable solutions to the vehicle recycling challenges of today and the future,” says Harvey Drucker, associate laboratory director for Argonne Laboratories.

Individual auto companies also have initiatives in place to help increase the recycling of plastics from vehicles at the end-of-life. Ford Motor Co. has a research project underway that’s looking at how to recycle the urethane foam used in seat cushions and other applications such as headrests, armrests, roof liners, dashboards, and instrument panels.

“We need to find a way to recover them at the right cost, as they are often glued into place,” says Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader for plastics and sustainable materials at the Ford Research and Innovation Center. “Technically, I believe you could do it within 3-5 years and that you can easily put 10-20% recycled urethane foam back into those products.”

Two other areas of research for Ford are projects that are looking into the commonization of materials and at how to get rid of adhesives in manufacturing. “We are looking at ways to connect parts without adhesives,” says Mielewski.

Kozora of IAC also thinks that looking at the materials used for parts could have a positive impact on recycling. “To achieve a better solution, companies have to think about design for recyclability upfront,” she says. 

“Right now, we have way too many materials in a vehicle,” says Kozora. “If we can move to more commonization of materials, and more across-the-board designs, it would increase the ability to recycle plastics from vehicles at the end-of-life, because the more the recycler has to do to reprocess it, the higher the cost it becomes to recycle.”

General Motors Corp. also is working to design for the environment so that plastic parts can be more readily recycled. “Design is a big deal,” says John Bradburn, director of waste reduction efforts at GM. “We want to design for the environment with specifications that increase the opportunities for recycling. We look at high-end opportunities on the recycling side so we can drive that concept backwards into the design phase and develop parts that can be more readily recycled.

“That is the missing element in our society,” Bradburn adds. “We all need to find out what materials communities are generating that others can use and, conversely, find out what materials those companies need that we can generate…. 

“Marketing folks, environmental folks, and sustainability folks need to join forces to come up with ideas and work with others to swing deals,” he says. “It’s all about connecting the green dots to drive things forward so materials can be harvested for re-use by other local businesses.”

And sometimes you just have to think creatively, says Bradburn. For example, GM is building nest boxes for various birds and bats from the glass fiber-reinforced thermoplastic housings of the electric batteries used in the Chevrolet Volt. “What most people would look at as waste, we don’t.”