An effort to recycle plastics from automotive shredder residue has hit a roadblock because of concerns about polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Shredder residue is the leftover nonmetallic material from shredded automobiles, appliances and other industrial metal scrap, explained Ronald Kobler, president of Recovery Plastics International LLC in Salt Lake City.
Three years ago, Kobler was hired by the Vehicle Recycling Partnership to research ways to extract and identify plastics from auto shredder residue, or ASR. The VRP is a consortium of U.S. automakers founded to look into non-competitive research on automobile recycling.
Kobler's company came up with a method that was able to recover "in suitable purity for recycling," polypropylene, filled polypropylene, ABS, nylon and polyurethane foam, at a cost 30-50 percent below the price of virgin pricing, he said.
But the project was halted Dec. 10 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reopened its 22-year-old PCB regulations, and warned that RPI's research was not authorized under the current federal statute.
Until April, when EPA will review the regulations, all research into plastics recovery from shredder residue has ceased, said Peggy Reynolds, an environmental protection specialist with the Washington-based EPA.
"These uses, if they have not been specifically authorized, would basically result in a violation," she said.
PCBs once were used primarily as flame retardants in transformer oils. EPA outlawed almost all uses of PCBs in the mid-1970s, after they were determined to cause cancer.
Kobler said after extracting, washing and rinsing plastics from ASR, the plastics have PCB content of five to 10 parts per million — within the government's 50 ppm guideline.
Kobler said the detour from the research is a minor setback, but he is confident EPA will eventually reauthorize the effort.
"It doesn't appear to be any insurmountable problem. There are still plenty of other things to do in the project. I'm not sure how disappointing it is — it's just that it's an inconvenience," Kobler said.
The research actually began as an internal program for harvesting non-metals from ASR at DaimlerChrysler Corp. in Auburn Hills, Mich., said Susan Yester, this year's newly appointed Vehicle Recycling Partnership chair and manager of DaimlerChrysler's vehicle recycling program.
"DaimlerChrysler took the research to a point where it appeared interesting to continue it," Yester said by telephone from her Auburn Hills office. "We brought the research to VRP, and Ford and General Motors saw validity, and we continued it."
Yester shares Kobler's confidence that the research will continue. One reason is that the pool of pre-1978 vehicles being shredded is steadily diminishing, meaning the PCB-content of the ASR will drop.
Even though RPI's technology for separating plastics from ASR was left in the pilot stages, Yester said a similar type of technology has already gone commercial in Europe, and Kobler said another is close to being so in Japan.
Galoo Plastics SA, of Halluin, France, is marketing the technology to separate polypropylene and polyethylene from ASR. Salyp Recycling Center of Ieper, Belgium, is licensed by Argonne National Laboratory of Argonne, Ill., to market a technology to separate and recycle polyurethane foam in Europe.
Toyota Motor Corp. has commercialized technology to extract and reuse PU foam from shredder residue in Japan.