Can carmakers forget all of the fuss about all-polyolefin auto interiors?
DaimlerChrysler AG officials say the firm's pilot program to recover plastics from automotive shredder residue not only makes economic sense but also allows a wide variety of resins to go into cars without complicating the recycling process.
The push to ease recyclability of a vehicle at the end of its life has meant a focus on ``mono-material'' programs, with some companies seeking an all-polyolefin interior, for example, so auto recyclers can easily separate out large pieces of one family of resins for reuse.
But if the automated system developed by Recovery Plastics International LLC under the German-American automaker's leadership works out as well in commercial application as it has in tests, then the industry can separate out usable material from the shredded remains of cars and trucks.
``We don't have to design for ease of recycling,'' said Gerald Winslow, manager of DaimlerChrysler's Vehicle Recycling Partnership program. ``We can use whatever the best plastics are for the application.'' Winslow spoke Feb. 14 during the Society of Plastics Engineers Global Plastics Environmental Conference in Detroit.
DaimlerChrysler first hooked up with Salt Lake City-based RPI in the mid-1990s to test the prospect for using recycled plastics to mold automotive parts, with the aim of eventually providing a long-term market to use the material recovered from cars.
The company already has one ``CARE Car'' (from its Concepts for Advanced Recycling and Environmental Car Program) manufactured with components made from post-industrial recycled material that met the automaker's requirements.
The real test, though, is finding a way to get the plastics from scrapped vehicles back into new vehicles.
Typically, an auto recycling yard takes in cars and trucks at the end of their lives, strips them of usable parts and separates out the metal body panels and components for recycling. What is left is a shredded assortment of mixed plastics, glass, foam, textiles, rubber, dirt and a variety of trash. All of that now goes to the landfill, said Ronald Kobler, president of RPI.
Kobler developed a proprietary process that could not only divide plastics from the rest of the materials, but also separate the different plastics, essentially by using additives that would react with specific compounds.
The targeted resins separate from the other materials and can be skimmed off for recycling.
In 2000, DaimlerChrysler launched a pilot study using RPI's process in which it teamed up with two major auto recovery companies - Hugo Neu Corp. of New York and David J. Joseph Co. of Cincinnati - and a group of more than 20 molders that would test the resulting recycled plastic blends on production equipment and molds for a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The two new test vehicles, labeled as CARE Car II, have 54 parts or systems using the plastic collected from shredder residue. Recycled material totals 142 pounds in each Jeep with recycled polyolefin, polyurethane foam and ABS. In all, 34 percent of the total weight of plastics on each sport utility vehicle, comes from post-consumer scrap, Winslow said.
Those components are not just hidden, basic-black plastic either, he noted. There are exterior trim parts, painted bumpers, interior door panels, knobs and handles a driver would use and see every day.
``Three years ago, we never envisioned that you could make a Class A surface from 60 percent [shredder residue],'' Kobler said.
Not only has the pilot program proved capable of making parts that stand up to the automaker's standards, it also has shown a potential savings of $10-$20 per vehicle on material costs. Auto recovery yards, meanwhile, will have an additional revenue stream from sales of not only the plastic but also the other bits and pieces separated out through the process - copper wire, aluminum and magnesium otherwise lost.
Auto yards would buy the separation equipment and license technology from RPI, adding it onto their existing facilities, if the prospect ever makes it into commercial application. A decision on pushing the pilot to a large-scale program could come within the next few months, according to Richard Gutowski, senior manager of organic materials for DaimlerChrysler.
With a sound, cost-effective way to recover plastics at the auto scrap yard, designers can stop worrying so much about creating huge single-material, easy-to-disassemble components and instead focus on which resin would best suit the application, he said.
That could mean more emphasis on soft touch for aesthetics, less expensive plastics blends or selecting a material with improved flow in the molding process.
DaimlerChrysler's role, Gutowski said, is to act as a champion for the system, providing both the impetus to get molders to use the recycled product and a real commercial application.
``It's going to spread,'' Gutowski said. ``It's not just going to be DaimlerChrysler buying it eventually, and that's when we can really close the loop.''
If the automaker decides to push ahead on commercialization of the program, it is likely to begin with a few selected components.
The companies also must continue showing the system's ability to cope with the wider array of engineered thermoplastics in today's vehicles.
``We are looking at a cross section now of the material used 10 years ago,'' Kobler said. ``The average age of a scrapped car is 8-12 years old.''
The signs are positive so far, though, Kobler said, with a realistic prospect of bringing the automated separation system on line.
``This is a major, major step,'' Kobler said. ``We all need to appreciate the fact that these [CARE] cars are just the first step to doing what we want to do in a very realistic way, a cost-effective way.''