U.S. automakers and suppliers are campaigning to keep government off their backs. The issue in question is recycling, and the material under the microscope is plastic.
``We're trying to be proactive now to stave off legislation,'' said Tony Brooks, materials recycling engineer for Dearborn, Mich.-based Visteon Automotive Systems. ``Whenever government gets involved, it costs more money both for us and the consumer. We don't always come up with the best solutions.''
While metals recycling has been standard operating procedure for years in the automotive industry, plastic recycling has trailed far behind. Cost factors and the lack of demand frequently have been cited as culprits.
An undercurrent of activity both by automakers and suppliers could topple current thinking and set plastics recycling in motion on a grander scale. Leading the way are recycling programs that involve plastic bumper fascias for Ford Motor Co. and roof rails on DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s Dodge Viper.
Automakers are looking to Europe, where several countries are asking carmakers to account for recyclable vehicle parts and even pay a fee to dispose of those parts, said Ken Urban, recyclability engineer for General Motors Corp.'s Truck Group in Pontiac, Mich.
The auto industry also fears what a White House headed by Al Gore, a noted environmentalist, would mean.
``Perhaps at some point down the road, we may have to look at regulations to recycle plastics,'' Urban said. ``We'd like it to be an economic decision instead of a political one.''
Younger consumers — who buy secondhand clothes and embrace curbside recycling efforts — are also behind the move, said Monica Prokopyshen, senior product strategy and regulatory affairs specialist with DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich.
``Our customers are beginning to demand recycled content,'' Prokopyshen said. ``So we're moving to a philosophy of a green car.''
Still others say the time has come to recycle after years of thwarted attempts. Today, the years of sweat to make recycled resins that cost less and perform as well as virgin materials is starting to pay off, said Chief Executive Officer Mark Lieberman of American Commodities Inc., a Flint, Mich.-based recycler of plastic auto parts.
One of the largest plastics recycling projects in the auto industry was not an overnight success.
ACI had a difficult nut to crack: recycling painted thermoplastic parts. Taking the paint off used parts such as bumper fascias could be a technically challenging process, Lieberman said.
Unfortunately, the only way a discarded part could be reused and meet the specifications of the original part was first to strip it of paint, surface dirt and contaminants, he said.
So the company, which has a chemist on staff, spent several years trying dozens of different methods. None of them worked well, Lieberman said.
Finally, the recycler developed a mechanical process to strip paint from the material in an efficient, environmentally friendly manner. The process works especially well with thermoplastic olefins, the most frequently used material in North America for bumper fascias.
Visteon, Ford's parts-making unit, latched onto the technique for its bumper-fascia molding facilities in Utica and Milan, Mich. The parts supplier tested the process for another year before giving it the go-ahead.
``Persistence is often the key to success,'' Lieberman said. ``We finally found an approach that seemed to make sense.''
Starting in November, Visteon began using the process for a majority of its bumper fascias. The Utica and Milan plants together recycle about 80,000 pounds of TPO each week. As much as 20 percent of the bumper-fascia material for the 1999 model Lincoln Town Car, Lincoln Continental, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable comes from recycled plastic, Brooks said.
ACI has created a network of 400 dismantlers nationwide to pull bumpers from end-of-life vehicles. ACI then reprocesses and restores the collected material for reuse by Ford.
Visteon has approval from Ford to use the recycled TPO for an entire bumper fascia, Brooks said.
``We're attempting to hit one of our original goals,'' he said. ``That's to stimulate demand so the recycling industry stands alone. We want to prove that it's not the flavor-of-the-month, but is a good, long-term business move.''
Rigid polyurethane was once considered an outcast to the recycling world.
It bothered PU suppliers such as BASF Corp. that the material was losing market share on automotive interiors and for bumper fascias, said Gary Lambert, automotive global sales manager for BASF in Mount Olive, N.J.
``There was a perception that polyurethane was not recyclable,'' said Lambert, who is based at BASF's automotive headquarters in Wyandotte, Mich. ``So, there was a movement to de-source the material in several applications. We wanted to correct industry misconceptions, and a good way to do that was to bring recycling technology to North America.''
That technology is chemical glycolysis, a complex process that breaks down the PU and extracts polyol, a building block of PU. The polyol can then be reused without property loss to make new parts. But the process was a bit expensive, and parts were hard to find.
Still, in September 1997, BASF and industrial recycler Philip Services Corp. of Hamilton, Ontario, opened a 5,000-square-foot recycling center in Detroit to refine the process.
Enter DaimlerChrysler. The automaker had decided to ramp up use of recycled parts and targeted recycled PU for roof rails on its Viper sports car late last year.
DaimlerChrysler wanted to start small with a niche vehicle, said Ed Witte, Viper product engineer with DaimlerChrysler. The supporting roof rails on the Viper's interior act as a bridge to hold the overhead system in place.
``At first, we had an aversion to using [recycled PU],'' Witte said. ``It had to be a painless switch-over, without adding tooling costs or material costs. When we found we could do that, management said to go for it.''
After about a year of testing the roof rails' performance on the Viper, a change was made in the middle of its production run.
Now, scrapped PU-based parts are recycled at the BASF plant. The rails contain close to 15 percent recycled content.
The carmaker would like to use recycled PU on other, higher-volume vehicles, now that the Viper application has been successful, Prokopyshen said.
Eventually, material from end-of-life vehicles will also be used, along with plant scrap. That is the only way to sustain the program, said Fred Hilker, business development manager with Rimply, which is molding the roof rails using reinforced reaction injection molding. Rimply is a unit of auto supplier Decoma International Inc. in Newmarket, Ontario.
``We're not in the business of making scrap parts,'' Hilker said. ``Parts are going to have to come from post-consumer vehicles to keep recycling going.''
U.S.-based carmakers also have come together to feed the recycling cause. As with work started at Visteon and DaimlerChrysler, the project was born from frustration over the state of plastics recycling.
Carmakers were concerned by the millions of dollars annually spent wasting plastic, said Urban at GM.
``For instance, we use an expensive, high-value piece of plastic, such as ABS, in the load area of utility vehicles,'' Urban said. ``Why bury it or shred it in a landfill when we could easily put it into something else of value? It costs us a lot of money to discard it.''
In October, a consortium of automakers from GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler banded together to start what they call field trials to collect bundles of high-value plastic parts from landfills. The trials were conducted under the auspices of the Southfield, Mich.-based U.S. Council for Automotive Research, called USCAR.
During 1999, the automaking group hopes to gather 10,000 pounds each of ABS, polycarbonate, polypropylene, nylon, PU foam and ethylene propylene diene terpolymer rubber. The group will work with 43 dismantlers to collect the parts, said William Orr, Ford's manager of worldwide recycling planning.
Next, the consortium, through USCAR's Vehicle Recycling Partnership in Highland Park, Mich., will do the dirty work: analyze each separated material for cleanliness and its ability to flake and be returned to pellets.
The materials will undergo mold trials on various parts to test for durability and melt flow. After that, the automakers together plan to release industry guidelines, probably in the year 2000, on dismantling and reusing the engineering resins, Orr said.
The impetus is finding a means to recycle material from aging, junked vehicles, Orr said. Resin companies and the American Plastics Council also are participating in the tests, Orr said.
The automobile industry's goal is to strike a course for closed-loop recycling, or using recycled resins on their original applications, Orr said. Like other carmakers, Ford does not want the government to legislate recycling, he said.
``We want the best minds in the dismantling and auto industries to jointly come up with solutions,'' Orr said. ``We'll see where the free market takes us, so we don't have to have mandates here.
``There's been a lot of skepticism over plastics recycling. Only time will tell, but, in some instances, I'm getting a warm feeling about it.''