HOLLAND, MICH. — Behind the walls of a nondescript, cloud-gray former warehouse, Prince Corp. engineers have worked on a confidential project, dubbed the ``zero landfill strategy,'' that could boost the prominence of recycled automotive plastics overnight.
At the Holland facility, discarded automotive parts — mainly door panels and interior trim pieces — and old soft drink bottles filter through an elongated machine called a textile opener. There, the pieces are pulled apart like taffy and shaped into a tangled, fibrous mass that resembles a gigantic piece of tumbleweed.
That innocuous-looking ball of fiber, called Eco-Cor, could help turn recycled plastics from a fringe player to an inside operator in an industry that long has scoffed at the practicality of reclaiming the material.
``For recycling, we had seen narrowly defined applications using exotic processes or materials that the industry could not support,'' said Peter Elafros, manager of business development and technology planning at Holland-based Prince. ``We realized that, to be effective, recycled materials had to be used around the globe and perform in both the heat of a rain forest or in Anchorage, Alaska.''
To the surprise of some, several of the world's largest interior parts suppliers are clamoring to climb aboard the recycling bandwagon. Prince plans to produce the first recycled interior parts next year and roll out its products worldwide.
And interior competitors Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich., and Holland-based Donnelly Corp. jointly plan to make their first overhead systems from recycled plastics by 2001. Those companies recently have started working under their Novi, Mich.-based joint venture, Lear Donnelly Overhead Systems LLC.
``We began to pick up information from [original equipment manufacturers] that the recyclability of products is taking on greater significance,'' said Ed Allen, vice president of sales and marketing for the joint venture. ``On that basis, we said let's go all the way. If we're going to make a leap, let's do it with new technology.''
The material benefiting from the industry's environmental largess could be PET. Neither urethane foam nor fiberglass — the materials used most often as energy-absorbing substances in overhead systems — are recycled as easily.
Currently, urethane captures about half the market for North American overhead systems, while fiberglass has a 25 percent share, said Phillip Sarnacke, automotive consultant with Houston-based Phillip Townsend Associates Inc. PET is not a player, Sarnacke said.
``Foam construction may be the cheapest way to make a headliner, but it's not as easy to recycle,'' Sarnacke said. ``With PET, you get one big piece of fluff instead of layers of urethane, fabric and film. This has potential to really increase the market for recycled goods.''
Driving the newfound interest has been automakers taking a firmer stand on recycling. All other things being equal, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. will purchase a part with recycled content over one without it, said William Orr, Ford's manager of worldwide recycling planning.
The automaker's material guidelines specify that its parts should have 25 percent recycled content whenever possible.
``We've got to get the big guys in the supplier community more involved,'' Orr said. ``We're serious about it. It's not empty rhetoric, but one of the pillars of our environmental strategy.''
Prince, a wholly owned subsidiary of auto interiors giant Johnson Controls Inc. of Glendale, Wis., has grand designs. JCI plans to use recycled content, made from PET or polypropylene, in virtually every overhead part, door panel and seat panel that it makes worldwide.
Acknowledged as the industry leader for overhead systems, JCI last year made 2.5 million interior overhead systems consisting of one-piece headliners and accompanying grab handles, sun visors, speakers, consoles and coat hooks. Separately, the company produced 166 million sun visors.
The company expects to use Prince's recycled PET as both an energy-absorbing substance, wedged between the substrate and the cover skin, and as the thermoformed part, under the trade name CorteX.
JCI's Prince plans to share the proprietary technology with its key suppliers worldwide, Elafros said.
But for the short term, Prince will make the parts themselves on three thermoforming lines at its Holland plant. The lines are scheduled to be installed by October.
The project had humble beginnings. Elafros and an advanced technology team of as many as 30 Prince engineers — some shuttling in and out of the project as the need arose — set up shop in 1993 in a gutted metal-fabricating plant.
The group spent months analyzing material applications for various vehicles. They would take field trips to nearby furniture companies, retail stores and even junkyards to evaluate how materials were used and reused. Meanwhile, executives from Prince and JCI gave the team full support and time for the project to take shape.
``We couldn't have done this without their backing and motivation,'' Elafros said. ``There were times when the phone would ring constantly. They wouldn't be calling to ask how we were and what was new. They wanted to know how the project was going.''
Besides the recycling issues, another key element is the implementation next year of stricter federal head-impact safety standards.
Those standards were formulated by the Washington-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Prince team evaluated computer models of different materials, compiling a list of automakers' top priorities for various vehicles — such as mass, cost or styling. It conducted head-impact testing via computer programs and physical data.
Finally, a year ago, the 80,000-square-foot plant opened under the name Cottonwood, partly derived from the cottony feel of the Eco-Cor material. Now, Prince expects to recycle more than 1 million pounds of interior parts annually at the plant, said operations manager Jeff Daniel.
``We're still too busy setting this up to really take account of what impact this might have,'' said Daniel, another advanced technology team member. ``Making this realistic and feasible has been our challenge from day one. We're at the point where we have a workable solution.''
The company plans to take discarded parts from a variety of dismantlers. After the parts run through the textile opener, the materials are blended together with other virgin substances in one of two carding machines.
Meanwhile, two of JCI's competitors, Lear and Donnelly, are breathing down its neck with a new recycled product called EcoLiner. The material has 50 percent recycled content. While the core comes from recycled PET gleaned initially from soft drink bottles, the two outer halves will consist of virgin PET, said David Emerling, director of advance development engineering for Lear Donnelly Overhead Systems.
The companies plan to make PET headliners a cornerstone of the joint venture, which they announced last fall.
First production with the recycled material is expected by 2001 with an undisclosed carmaker, Emerling said.
The companies plan to command about 10 percent of the North American overhead systems market, Allen added.
``PET was the best material for our purposes,'' Emerling said. ``It's crease-resistant so that we can fold the substrate into a car [during installation], it provides great head-impact cushioning and it's been proven to be easily recycled. It really is a hot material for interiors.''
That material was developed with PET recycler Sackner Products Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.
``For many years, OEMs have said they'd love to use recycled materials,'' said Randal Vant Hul, Sackner's sales and marketing director.
``But I'd categorize it as interest and intrigue. Cost has always been an issue that's kept the work from progressing quickly.''
The Lear Donnelly joint venture will shift from using recycled beverage bottles to post-consumer overhead parts once enough products are available in PET, Emerling added.
``We know there's no infrastructure for this now,'' he said. ``But we hope to develop one.''
The work by the suppliers could drive the use of PET to new levels, said Guy Vaughn, automotive sales and marketing manager for material supplier AlliedSignal Inc. of Morristown, N.J. However, the biggest challenge with the material has been its resistance to both painting and in-mold color, he said.
Yet, AlliedSignal now offers a high-performance PET that can be colored in the mold without the problem of fading, Vaughn said. Cost factors are not as large an issue, he said.
``PET is pretty versatile, and that factors into the cost,'' he said. ``That way, the industry can do the nice green thing.''
The urethane industry has not given up the fight. Last fall, BASF Corp. of Mount Olive, N.J., teamed with recycling provider Philip Services Corp. in Hamilton, Ontario, to reclaim polyurethane through glycolysis. The pilot operation in Detroit breaks down the material into its chemical building blocks, called polyols.
In general, recycled plastic products have a long way to go in the auto industry, said Orr at Ford. Many companies supplying the carmaker are resistant to change, he said.
``It's snowballing in interest, but there are problems with some molders,'' he said. ``They may have sweetheart agreements with a supplier of virgin resin that makes it hard to switch. Some of them are frustrated that they can't charge a premium for giving us recycled parts.''
Prince eventually plans to offer its proprietary technology to competitors, Elafros said.
``It goes back to responsibility,'' Elafros said. ``If we are the world's largest manufacturer of headliners, we have the best opportunity to really make a difference with this. And how else to make the largest impact than by getting the rest of the industry involved, too.''