DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. is preparing aggressive standards that will make recycled content a main priority for materials and parts purchased by the automaker.
The Dearborn, Mich., car company plans to send letters within two months to its major material and parts suppliers directing them to increase the amount of recycled material in vehicle components. The letter will be signed by several Ford vice presidents.
The company will set mandated levels requiring that suppliers provide a specific percentage of recycled materials per vehicle weight, said William Orr, Ford manager of worldwide recycling planning. The directive will take effect this fall.
Plastics — along with rubber and glass — is a key focus of the guidelines. Approximately 75 percent of a vehicle currently is recycled, and most of that comes from metals.
Although Ford did not want to share the recycling targets until suppliers were notified, the automaker is setting tough goals for plastics, Orr said. The emphasis will be on using post-consumer resins.
To date, most recycled parts from plastic use post-industrial waste, or plant scrap that is reused. But the automaker wants suppliers to help create a mechanism to collect and reuse waste from old vehicles.
``That really has the most resonance with consumers,'' Orr said in a June 10 telephone interview. ``That will be our target. It will have the largest effect on landfill reduction.''
Back in 1993, Ford adopted a position that a part must have at least 25 percent recycled content to be considered a recycled part. However, the company did not mandate that purchases include recycled content.
``We found that, in some cases, we could do a lot better than 25 percent,'' Orr said. ``The targets we have in mind are not trivial for plastics.''
The new standard was approved by a cross-departmental Ford team that includes executives from purchasing, design and engineering, materials and program-management groups.
Recycled content will become a more important element in the design of new Ford vehicles, said Tom Scott, Ford director of advanced design. The standards will cement that approach, he said.
``We already are requiring that 75-85 percent of materials in new products be recyclable,'' Scott said in a June 8 interview at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo in Detroit. ``Now, we're going farther by making sure that recycled materials do not just go for nonperformance applications.''
Parts suppliers will be expected to use those materials specified by Ford in future products. ``They'll have to move in lock step in short order,'' Orr said.
The Ford mandate is not totally unexpected by the supplier community. Since 1991, when Ford formed its Recycling Action Teams, or RAT Packs, the automaker has been vocal about ramping up recycling programs. For instance, Ford annually uses PET resin from more than 50 million 2-liter soft drink bottles for some parts.
Ford's recycling directive follows a similar standard issued by DaimlerChrysler AG in January. The Stuttgart, Germany-based automaker is asking that suppliers provide at least 30 percent recycled content by weight by 2002. The percentage is used for each material class.
In contrast, General Motors Corp. has no plans to adopt recycled guidelines for its suppliers, said spokesman Alan Adler. But the company frequently uses recycled materials for its vehicles, taking it on a case-by-case basis, he said.
``We don't tend to bang the drum as loudly as Ford does,'' Adler said. ``But recycled content is used frequently where it is warranted.''
Like DaimlerChrysler, Ford's aggressive stance is partly spurred by European legislation. The European Union is expected to vote by the end of 1999 on adopting a measure requiring that automakers recycle parts at the end of a vehicle's life or pay to have them landfilled.
As with Ford's plan, suppliers will be asked by European automakers to share the cost burden, Orr said.
Ford also is committed to taking an environmental stewardship role, Orr said. Doing that means setting a loftier global standard.
Yet, much work must be done — some of it by Ford — before that standard can be achieved, according to several leading material and parts suppliers.
Ford's success will be predicated on its approval of recycled plastic resins for future vehicles, said Jack Van Ert, director of advanced processes by interior-systems supplier Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich.
``Someone has to champion different raw materials,'' Van Ert said. ``Once [recycled materials] are tested and validated by Ford, suppliers will follow suit pretty quickly. The specifications from OEMs now are primarily written around the use of virgin resin.''
When Lear attempted to use recycled materials in the past, the resins did not always meet carmakers' performance guidelines, Van Ert said. The supplier was forced to revert back to virgin materials.
Carmakers are showing growing interest in recycled resins, said John McAuley, manager of environmental programs for Montell Polyolefins in Wilmington, Del. The company's Refax recycled thermoplastic olefin resin was approved by GM last year and this year by Ford.
Several leading material suppliers were encouraged by Ford's move when they learned about it last week. The shift to recycled resins could help those suppliers form a closer bond to automakers yearning for solutions, several said.
Yet, some lingering issues remain with plastics recycling. Consumers are not willing to pay a price premium for recycled materials, said Larry Denton, global vice president of Southfield, Mich.-based Dow Automotive.
And it continues to be difficult to separate plastic and reuse it in critical components without a cost penalty, Denton said. Dow is attacking the problems in its material-science laboratories, he said.
For Ford's actions to work, automakers must not strand suppliers. Instead, OEMs need to help design parts for recyclability and analyze resins for potential uses, said Greg Janicki, vice president of automotive consultants CSM Corp. of Farmington Hills, Mich.
``Otherwise, it's a `give me more value but don't change the cost' issue,'' Janicki said. ``And plastic might not be economically viable for recycling.''
Yet, Denton and others welcomed Ford's move as a way to spur demand for recycled products. Plastics recycling will never become viable unless carmakers become serious about the issue, said Ronald Liesemer, vice president of technology and director of durables for Washington-based American Plastics Council.
The move by Ford could have two other lingering effects on suppliers, said William Windscheif, director of Montell Polyolefins' automotive group in Troy, Mich. Carmakers and suppliers will have to increase performance testing on parts with recycled content, he said.
And secondly, vehicles potentially will use fewer types of differing materials, increasing the ease of recycling, he said.
Resin suppliers will have no choice but to work with automakers to meet those goals, even if it means sacrificing the use of virgin resins, said Sean Campbell, recycle manager for GE Plastics Automotive in Southfield, Mich.
GE has added staff in the past four years to search for new applications for recycled engineering resins. The company has adopted a proactive stance on recycling, Campbell said.
``It's probably fair to say that if we don't help our customers get there, someone else will,'' he said. ``We'd rather be part of the process than avoid it.''
That work could be pushed to higher levels. Orr said Ford eventually would like to make as much as 90 percent of a vehicle recyclable. Material suppliers already are helping Ford achieve that, he said.
``A few years ago, I would have said that they needed motivation,'' Orr said. ``Now, I think they're coming to the party again. We want them to keep doing a good job for us to be successful.''