It comes as no surprise that recycling is no longer on the front burner for U.S. automakers.
Cost considerations are now, by far, the leading concern in the industry, according to DuPont Co.'s annual poll of automotive engineers, done in conjunction with the Society of Automotive Engineers and released last week at the SAE show in Detroit.
Recycling, along with quality issues, was very hot a few years ago. Both have declined in stature.
The Big Three can claim to have tackled quality problems. But recycling has slipped away, not because the industry has dealt with the problem, but because whatever public pressure was behind the issue largely has disappeared.
Five years ago, automakers were concerned that legislation would force them into the recycling business. In Europe, laws began to force manufacturers to take responsibility for discarded cars.
In addition, the existing auto recycling infrastructure complained about the growing use of plastics. Auto fluff — the material left after recyclers extracted valuable products including steel and nonferrous metals — was expanding as a percentage of the total car, and recyclers worried that the fluff would become more expensive to ship to landfills.
The plastics industry responded proactively to these concerns, making efforts to improve resin labeling of parts, design products for easier disassembly, and set up pilot projects to recycle plastic components.
In some cases, the projects now have grown into commercial successes. For example, Plastics News' Detroit-based reporter Joseph Pryweller wrote last week about Ford Motor Co.'s use of post-consumer nylon 6/6 in the 3 million air-cleaner housings molded per year at its Sandusky, Ohio, plant.Ford's recycling projects, with partners Wellman Inc. of Shrewsbury, N.J., and DuPont Co. of Wilmington, Del., make the automaker the world's largest user of post-consumer nylon.
One reason these projects have been successful is because they make economic sense.
Ford is not willing to pay a premium for recycled material — remember, cost is now Job 1 in Detroit.
Public attitudes are subject to change, of course. And plastic automotive material and parts suppliers particularly will be susceptible if the winds blow in favor of recycling again — remember, steel and aluminum are inherently easier to recycle, and nearly always include recycled content.
All the plastics industry can do now is support recycling when it makes sense, continue to watch that bottom line, and keep an eye on the opinion polls.
Loepp is managing editor of Plastics News.