DETROIT - Five automotive molders are using an experimental recycling program to pave the way for broader application of sheet molding compound. Despite SMC's desirable characteristics - light weight, strength and paintability - until recently it has been doomed to end its useful life in landfills, which makes it unpopular with automotive recyclers.
Since the fall, the five companies, under the umbrella of the SMC Automotive Alliance in Southfield, Mich., have been shredding their bad parts and flashings and trucking them to Taylor, Mich. The companies include Eagle-Picher Plastics Division in Grabill, Ind.; Baily Corp. in Lancaster, Ohio; Budd Co.'s Plastics Division in Cary, Ohio; GenCorp Automotive in Fairlawn, Ohio; and Navistar Columbus Plastics in Columbus, Ohio.
From the collection point in Taylor run by Watech Inc., the pieces - roughly 2 inches by 8 inches in size - are shipped to Canada. At Phoenix Fiberglass in Oakville, near Toronto, the material is pulverized, cleaned and turned into piles of tiny glass fiber sorted by size, chopped strands of fiber, and ground up dust.
The fiber can be reused as fiber, and the dust can be used to replace calcium carbonate, which commonly is used as a filler in the composite.
The alliance has spent about $1 million on its program since 1990, not counting the time and expense borne by members. Overall, the industry probably has spent $5 million on the program, according to Al Trueman, the alliance chairman, who is also vice president of plastics sales and marketing at Budd Co.'s Plastics Division.
SMC parts have been tested with 10-25 percent regrind, Trueman said. The parts with recycled material are as much as 10 percent lighter, and stronger, and they need not cost more.
Even when the composite with recyclate costs 5 cents a pound more, fewer pounds are required for a given part, thus reducing the overall material cost. By the end of 1996, when composite molders end their price supports to Phoenix for the regrind dust, the price probably will drop, Trueman said.
Recycled plastic has a sort of affirmative action program in place, said Jim Grzelak, sales engineer for Eagle-Picher Plastics Division, and a spokesman for the alliance.
Ford Motor Co. of Dearborn, Mich., is leading the way, asking suppliers for 25 percent recycled content in its cars in 2000. But, Grzelak said, although Ford's corporate goal is in place, program managers sometimes do not know about it and in many cases give it a low priority.
``One of our big problems is getting a material approved,'' Grzelak said. ``Each change in material, for each part, requires a new approval,'' and engineers who could do the approvals are busy on other projects.
Parts with recycled SMC content showed up in the 1991 Audi 100 wheel well and a roof rack for a Toyota sold in Japan. Chrysler Corp.'s Neon uses recyclate in the spoiler, and 1995 Navistar trucks use it in fender extensions.
But the slow migration of recycled plastic into cars is not all the automakers' fault. For example, Ford has approved an SMC engine valve cover containing post-consumer filler for its Econoline van - but no one is making it.
There is no infrastructure for getting plastic parts from junkyards to the Taylor collection center.
``We are thinking about how to connect with the body shops,'' Grzelak said.
``Down the line'' somewhere, an educational campaign may encourage body shops to ship damaged fenders, decklids and hoods to the collection center, instead of paying to landfill them, said Erin Millerschin, program director at the SMC Auto-motive Alliance. Then a supply of post-consumer SMC would be available for the Phoenix project, which would allow someone to build the Econoline valve cover.
But for now, the alliance has its hands full expanding its scrap recycling program and getting recyclates flowing back into the auto industry through part approvals.