RICHMOND, CALIF. — Researchers say they have made dramatic improvements in recycling plastics from computers and cars and are set to test the first line that can do that at commercially viable speeds.
But whether the breakthroughs at the industry-funded MBA Polymers Inc. laboratory in Richmond will translate into widespread recycling remains to be seen because no one knows how cost-effective or marketable they will be.
``We are not on the verge of widespread commercialization of the process,'' said Jack Benson, chairman of the American Plastics Council's Information Technology Industries Subcommittee, and business development director of durables for Dow Chemical Co.
``The infrastructure for that is not yet in place, and technical and economic hurdles still need to be overcome.''
The improvements unveiled May 5 at MBA's new, 50,000-square-foot facility do get ``very close'' to overcoming technical hurdles such as identifying the myriad plastics used in durable products and easily separating plastics from metal and other components in the equipment, Benson said. Washington-based APC provides a significant portion of the funding for MBA's research.
``A lot of the technical hurdles we think we've tackled,'' said MBA President Michael Biddle. ``I don't want to say we've tackled every hurdle, but that's what we've been about for the last four years.''
Those improvements include:
A line that handles 10,000 pounds per hour, five times the maximum at APC's previous laboratory for commercial-scale activity. The line will have a wet separator capable of using water pressure to sort plastics at that speed, the first time that has been done, Biddle said.
Breakthroughs in identifying different plastics quickly, including a line expected this summer that can sort light-colored plastics as they move in a conveyor belt. One machine can identify 12 separate plastics in as little as 60 milliseconds per piece. It also has two pieces of equipment using identification technology fresh from Toyota Motor Corp. labs: one is portable, and the other burns off paint to identify the plastic underneath.
A medium-scale line that can break apart and better separate ``pure'' streams of plastics from complex parts that include metals, such as a Hewlett-Packard inkjet printer cartridge, Biddle said.
With a new grinder and a second magnet to aid separation, the line can handle about 3,000 pounds an hour.
The 10,000-pound commercial line is likely to need several years of tweaking to work out bugs and answer questions, such as how pure the stream of product going in has to be and how much paint it can contain, said Red Cavaney, APC's president and chief executive officer.
Nonetheless, APC is happy with the lab and has been shifting more of its research spending to MBA, he said.
Cavaney would not comment on how much money APC has spent at MBA.
Market and infrastructure hurdles remain, however.
For example, it is getting harder to make a case for recycling the high-priced polycarbonate/ ABS blends used in computer housings because they are being replaced by much cheaper virgin ABS, particularly from the Far East, said J. Ray Kirby, manager of IBM's Engineering Center for Environmentally Conscious Products.
Kirby is also an active participant in efforts by APC and the electronic industry.
``Our target just moved'' for recycling, he said. ``We were trying to beat the PC/ABS price. Now we have to beat the ABS price.''
Generally, the goal is to extract recycled resin for about half the cost of virgin, said Al Maten, director of durables for APC.
There is little demand for recycling plastics from computers and electronics into other high-end uses because manufacturers demand that prices for recycled resins be as low as 30 percent less than virgin, according to an APC-sponsored study that was delivered at an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. computer recycling conference, held earlier this month in San Francisco.
``This can be difficult to achieve at this point on the open market, particularly given the lack of a systematic collection system,'' the study said.
Each information technology equipment manufacturer handles collection differently, so APC and the information technology industry are trying to work together to beef up the infrastructure and gather enough material in one place so that the economics are favorable, Benson said. When that will happen is tough to predict, but it could take at least a year, he said.
IBM's Kirby said recycling for computers will increase because the first computers that were made with recyclability in the design were produced in the early 1990s.
Those computers are just now entering the waste stream.
The steps being taken to beef up the infrastructure will help, he said: ``I don't want to oversell what is happening, but a lot of progress is being made.''
APC's Information Technology Industry Subcommittee, which includes IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co., Motorola and AT&T, also released design guidelines that will make it easier to remove plastics when the equipment is thrown away.
An internal IBM study released at the IEEE conference found that the computer maker increased its use of recycled plastics 72 percent in 1996 but was not able to decrease the disassembly time for three of four products studied.
APC officials said they do not know what percentage of plastics in various durable goods is recycled, and Kirby estimated that IBM uses 2-3 percent recycled resins in its equipment.
A Washington unit of the nonprofit National Safety Council is planning a study to develop base-line data on recycling in electronic goods. NSC is in Itasca, Ill.