The auto industry took a beating in the first quarter and may stand to take a few more hits in the coming years. That leaves the question: Where does automotive plastics recycling stand in light of the cutbacks?
The consensus bottom line of recyclers, carmakers and observers: As long as recycling or recyclability does not add cost, it will survive. But if recycling represents an added or break-even expense, then it's likely to get scrapped with the millions of pounds of automotive fluff that winds up in landfills once metal materials have been recovered.
Automakers still want suppliers to expand their use of recycled content and recyclability of their products, but economic woes have cut back on some of the rhetoric, said Alan J. Power, president and chief executive officer of Decoma International Inc.
"When the auto industry goes through a slowdown, there tends to be a retrenching back to the basics of making money," Power said.
Decoma is a major injection molder for worldwide automakers, including DaimlerChrysler AG, which recently announced layoffs.
Brian Rhudy, automotive markets manager for KW Plastics Recycling Division in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is confident his company's reprocessed polypropylene from battery casings and post-consumer high density polyethylene will remain cost-competitive with virgin material. However, Rhudy also knows that in times of trimming down, his company will have to make sure it remains that way.
"Like anything else, it's got to be cheaper," Rhudy said. "Unless it's lower-cost, nobody wants to take a look at it.
"The real truth is, [recycling's] not important unless the price is lower."
Gerald Winslow, DaimlerChrysler's program manager for the Vehicle Recycling Partnership, a joint effort among Ford, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors Corp. to investigate and put into practice industrywide recyclability and recycled-content goals, admits that cost is a major factor for automotive companies — especially in today's economic climate. But Winslow added that manufacturing cutbacks should not negatively affect ongoing recycling efforts.
"If it is cost-effective, it's more likely to happen. If it's a break-even cost, I'm not so sure it's going to happen," Winslow said. "We have to have a defined, reliable supply of recycled content to implement a production strategy."
Winslow said DaimlerChrysler is manufacturing automobiles now with the global market in mind — and that includes recyclability and recycled-content considerations. More specifically, Winslow said DaimlerChrysler soon will be rolling out products that comply with a recent European Union directive for end-of-life vehicles, or ELVs. The goal, he said, is a 95 percent recyclable automobile by 2005.
Although automakers are preparing for the same sort of directive in the United States, they would rather let the market — not legislation — drive recycling issues.
Andy Acho, worldwide director of environmental outreach and strategy with Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich., said there is no infrastructure set up to handle closed-loop recycling of ELVs. He added that lack of markets could mean that recycled resin from automobiles may not end up back in new car applications.
"A market-driven system makes more sense," Acho said. "The automobile is one of the most highly recycled products we have already. If you can make it market-driven and make sense, there shouldn't be a need for legislation."
And even if the current market is sluggish, Acho said that will not have any bearing on Ford's recycled-content requirements.
Acho said Ford has been at the forefront of promoting and demanding a certain amount of recycled content from its suppliers since 1993.
"When we first started [recycling efforts], people didn't think what we were asking for made economic sense," Acho said. "In the end, if you look at all of the parts we now have that do meet those standards, obviously it was a good objective.
"I think the suppliers have been up to the challenge and continue to be."
Michael Fisher, technology director for the Fairfax, Va.-based American Plastics Council, said industry efforts to improve plastics sortation are promising and economically sustainable.
"When it comes to plastic identification and sorting technology, I don't think technology around the world is better than in the United States," said Fisher, who works closely with the Vehicle Recycling Partnership.
"It is important to understand that plastics are really an engineered material. You're not going to make a safe, affordable, comfortable automobile out of one plastic," he said.
"What needs to be done is for people to sit down and say, `What can I do to recognize the need to have one plastic separated from another plastic to maintain value?'"
Right now, people are working behind the scenes to achieve a more uniform separation and identification method. But producing a recyclable car — and one using recycled products — will not be easy. The infrastructure to reclaim the variety of resins used in auto interiors alone just is not in place, said another automotive supplier.
"Everybody is waiting for it," said Rebecca Spearot, director of environmental management for Lear Corp. of Southfield, Mich.
Even if auto scrapyards master the technique of pulling large parts out of the car quickly and efficiently, recyclers still are left with a wide mixture of plastics. An instrument panel, for instance, could have an ABS substructure, polyurethane foam padding and a PVC skin.
"The next issue becomes, can you separate it?" Spearot said.
One key player in the effort has been Recovery Plastics International Inc. of Salt Lake City. RPI has worked to recover PP, ABS and PU at near-prime quality. The recovered material should be available at 50 percent of the cost of virgin resin, said RPI President Ronald Kobler.
Once RPI's technology evolves from prototype to full-scale commercial status by next year, Kobler said many of the financial barriers to recovering automotive plastics manually should be dissolved.
"In the case of our approach, you don't have to have dismantling centers, because you simply put the vehicle into the shredder and reclaim the same plastic and the same foam weight you would have by dismantling — except it costs next to nothing," Kobler said. "And you get a plastic pellet that can be used in just about anything."