When Chrysler Corp. unveiled plans in January to make one of the world's first all-plastic cars, the company said the structural body panels would be 100 percent recyclable.
But several automotive recycling experts say Chrysler and other automakers need to start backing up their words with more action.
They say car companies have not created enough demand or built an infrastructure for a full-blown plastics recycling program. Consequently, most plastic-based auto parts end up in a landfill heap.
Take for instance Huron Valley Steel Co., one of North America's largest auto recyclers. That company, which reprocesses 40 million pounds of metal a month, dispatches all of its plastic to landfills, said Richard Osterberg, vice president of operations for the Belleville, Mich., company.
``Our viewpoint is that as cars move more to plastics, we'll do less and less recycling,'' he said. ``We can't sort it, we couldn't identify it all and there are few end markets for the material. The auto companies seem to make grandiose statements about [plastic] recycling, but they haven't created a market for it.''
Osterberg added that if the auto companies developed a market for plastic resins, recyclers would find a way to process it.
``Taking scrapped body panels to make curb stops or park benches would have no value,'' said Chief Executive Officer Mark Lieberman of thermoplastic auto recycler American Commodities Inc. of Flint, Mich. ``We'd like to see the industry take advantage of cost and engineering to get recycled materials into actual vehicles on a larger scale.''
Wellman Inc., which claims to be the world's largest recycler of PET resin from soft drink bottles, is uncertain how recyclers would handle Chrysler's car bodies.
Chrysler is considering glass-filled PET or a thermoplastic olefin for its cars. During the North American International Auto Show, the carmaker said it would like to develop a lightweight plastic car within the decade.
However, using glass could slow separation of a resin into its raw form, said Donald Cartwright, vice president of Wellman's engineering resin division in Johnsonville, S.C. Also, expensive impact modifiers on a car body might add to reprocessing costs, he said.
Auto and some resin manufacturers are more upbeat. They say they are doing all they can to make the world a better place for reused automotive plastic.
In fact, if research efforts bear fruit, Chrysler — and possibly other automakers — could decide to work primarily with those easily recycled resins, said Chrysler recycling program manager Gerald Winslow. That could also slow the growth of other resins in vehicles, Winslow said.
The example offered by Winslow is a pilot program initially funded by Chrysler and now sponsored by the Southfield, Mich.-based automotive consortium U.S. Council for Automotive Research. The group wants to develop a method to separate uncontaminated resin from automotive shredder residue, or ASR.
The ASR — a combination of plastic, glass, rubber, road tar and other materials — is left behind after a vehicle is shredded and the metal recovered.
Also known as fluff, ASR typically is dispatched to the landfill, said Winslow, who works at USCAR's Vehicle Recycling Development Center in Highland Park, Mich. The center is part of USCAR's Vehicle Recycling Partnership, a collaborative effort of Big Three automakers.
``I think we all realize we want to start reducing the complexity in the number of plastic resins in a car and use those that can be recycled,'' Winslow said. ``If we continue to reduce the metal in cars, we'll have a comparable increase in recycled plastics.''
For the study, Chrysler commissioned 14 late-model Dodge Cirrus and Stratus sedans. After the cars were shredded, the ASR was sent to Richmond, Calif., recycling research company MBA Polymers Inc. to identify the samples, and to Recovery Processes International Inc. for separation.
RPI of Salt Lake City, which will receive 30-40 tons of ASR, plans to separate 26 distinct plastic materials in a liquid bath filled with additives, Winslow said.
The plant will have a pilot production line and a demonstration center in place by mid-1998, Winslow said. In its test stage, the plant has segregated such materials as polypropylene, nylon and PET.
The automaker's response might not be enough, according to some recyclers. American Commodities, a company that recycles 22 million pounds of plastic annually, resigned from the Vehicle Recycling Partnership because it was not moving quickly enough, Lieberman said.
Real progress can only be made when automakers sit down with recyclers that have spent years developing successful technology, he said.
``We would welcome the forum, but I'm still waiting for my phone to ring,'' Lieberman said. ``Instead, automakers are going after lower-hanging fruit like research studies where they can posture and move on. The metal industry has had a long-time love affair with the industry, and it's time for it to receive a wake-up call from plastics.''
Martin Forman, president of scrap reprocessor Forman Metal Co. of Milwaukee, questioned industry attempts to come up with technology that can separate and label the more than 100 dissimilar varieties of plastic in a typical vehicle.
That would include not only different types and grades of thermoplastics or thermosets but also those with distinct fillers such as glass or fibers.
All of which is impractical for a scrap processor, Forman said. In addition, it would not pay a processor to spend $2-$3 a pound to recycle a resin worth about 50 cents a pound on the open market, Forman said.
``The technology to recycle mixed plastics has been either nonexistent or nonsensical,'' said Forman, who formerly also owned a plastics recycling business. ``Studies to separate [ASR] have produced fluffy, garbagey material than can't be used. The viability of recycling plastics is largely politically motivated and largely folly to this point.''
Currently, little demand exists for plastics, especially those mixed with additives or that blend two resins, said Robert Garino, commodities director with the Washington-based Institute for Scrap Recycling.
Today, the cost of recycling plastics typically makes it noncompetitive with virgin material, he said.
``I don't think shredders today are looking to take plastics off vehicles,'' Garino said. ``The ideal thing is to turn autos back into bumpers or car bodies, depending what the resin is, but that's much further down the road.''
Chrysler officials have not wavered. If the company is successful at putting a plastic-bodied car on the road, as it expects to do within the next decade, a long-awaited recycling market for plastics could be created, said Chrysler spokesman Scott Fosgard from the company's Auburn Hills, Mich., offices.
``We know there's no infrastructure in place now, but we think an [all-plastic] car might drive it,'' Fosgard said. ``We want to create a body out of one material, not 19 different types of plastic. Essentially, thermoplastics are like candles that can be melted down and reshaped, unlike a thermoset.''
The automaker's goal is to reuse 15 percent of the resin from a vehicle's plastic body on another car shell, Fosgard said. More scrap material can be recycled for parts or other applications, he said.
If it works, a major shift could be afoot, said Susan Yester, head of Chrysler's vehicle recycling programs. Currently, about 95 percent of all vehicles are recycled in North America, of which about 75 percent is reused for scrap, Yester said. Unfortunately, the other 25 percent normally includes plastic waste.
``The question is, how do you get plastics from vehicles into a position where they are recycled consistently,'' Yester said. ``Our belief is that demand could be out there, and the key is [recycling] plastics in a cost-effective manner.''
Automakers are already recycling plastics for select areas, such as fan shrouds, battery cases and some bumper fascias, Yester said.
Ticona, the company supplying the PET-based material for Chrysler's prototype plastic cars, says its resin does not have a high glass content and includes no other blends. That makes it easier to separate out the pure resin, said Michel Bitritto, director of Ticona's Encore products and services.
Ticona is the Summit, N.J.-based technical polymers division of Hoechst Celanese Corp.
The biggest hurdle the material faces is a conservative automotive industry afraid to take risks that could affect performance and cost, he said.