SOUTHFIELD, MICH. — Automotive supplier Lear Corp. quietly is launching two major thrusts to recycle plastic from vehicles.
The Southfield-based company, one of the world's largest interior-parts suppliers, is introducing products that reuse plastic in overhead systems and carpeting. The supplier has begun talking to automakers about using parts containing recycled content.
That work has come after intensive development work at Lear facilities both in the United States and Germany, said Jack Van Ert, Lear's director of advanced process development.
``The level of recyclability in Europe is already high,'' Van Ert said. ``We think by the 2001 production year much of that will be translated here.''
Lear is rolling out two new recycled materials to meet those emerging market demands: EcoLiner, a PET resin from soft drink bottles that the supplier will use inside headliners; and EcoPlus, a nylon-based carpet material collected from scrap pieces.
The EcoLiner headliner material will be used on new parts made by Lear-Donnelly Overhead Systems LLC, a joint venture that began last year between Lear and parts producer Donnelly Corp. of Holland, Mich.
Other interior-parts producers, including Johnson Controls Inc. of Plymouth, Mich., and Dearborn, Mich.-based United Technologies Automotive, also have starting using recycled PET for headliners.
Headliners on the road today predominately use polyurethane foam for the inner shell instead of PET.
The Lear-Donnelly headliners are some of the first to use PET purchased from outside recyclers of bottles, said David Emerling, director of advance development engineering for the joint venture, based in Novi, Mich.
``We really want to regrind our own headliners and make more parts from them,'' Emerling said. ``But this gives us a good supply of materials for the headliner substrates, at least in the near future.''
The venture will supply overhead systems with recycled PET for three unspecified future models to be built in North America, Emerling said. Those models will be produced starting by late 2000, he added.
Lear-Donnelly will buy the PET in bats, a rolled blanket of material. The reground PET will be used for the two outer surfaces of a headliner substrate, with a layer of virgin PET sandwiched between them.
The headliners will be made at the venture's Marlette, Mich., plant and possibly at a Mexico facility, Emerling said.
Lear also has started recycling carpet scrap made from nylon 6, 6/6 and various other resins at its Carlisle, Pa., facility. The carpet-making plant, which occupies more than 1 million square feet of space, began testing a new machine, developed in-house in mid-1997.
The machine helps convert the carpet scrap to bales, said Donald Backenstow, vice president of Lear's automotive fabrics division. Pellets then are made from those bales.
Now, Lear would like to sell automakers on the idea of using the material, which comes out as a black-colored resin, in nonvisible applications such as acoustical parts, barriers for dash insulators or the backs of floor mats, Backenstow said.
``We have to find applications that fit our customers,'' Backenstow said. ``In bits and pieces, we're collecting carpeting from all over the world.''
Currently, the plant is recycling more than 1 million pounds of scrap a year. The machine, which has the capacity to handle as much as 15 million pounds of scrap annually, cleans the material and heats it before it is turned into bale bundles.
The biggest difficulty was forming a usable material from as many as five thermoplastic resins that make up carpet face and backing, Backenstow said.
Lear did not want to take on the arduous process of separating the resins, he added. The project started about eight years ago.
``The chemistry had to be figured out,'' Backenstow said. ``The key to this was processing waste carpet scrap and finding an application for it. We needed to avoid the cost of sending our carpet to landfills.''
About 25 million pounds of carpet annually go to landfills from the plant, Backenstow said. Lear estimates landfill costs for carpet scrap at $50-$100 per ton in North America.
The process developed by Lear can create a bale of recycled carpet scrap in about 10 minutes, Backenstow said. Each bale contains as much as 1,500 pounds of scrap material.
Lear bought the Carlisle plant in 1996 when it purchased Masland Corp. The facility is one of the largest producers of needle-punch and tufted carpet in North America, producing about 55 million square yards a year for automakers, Backenstow said.