The stuff of Salyp NV's business dreams is made of trash.
It arrives by the truckload, siphoned off from the residue of auto scrap yards that otherwise would have gone directly to a landfill: torn chunks of urethane foam the length of Salyp Chief Executive Officer Ivan Vanherpe's forearm; hunks of black plastic the size of his fist; and twisted strands of wire and fabric, and unidentifiable parts that could be anything from rocks to oil-stained wads of paper.
It is all contained in automotive shredder residue, the remains of junked cars once auto recyclers have claimed what is considered the valuable parts of the vehicle.
``This is polycarbonate, this is rubber,'' Vanherpe pointed out from a mixed pile of scrap during a Sept. 18 interview at Salyp's headquarters. ``There's foam. There are a lot of resources here that are just being thrown in a landfill, and people are paying to get rid of it. We have the impression that it is not waste, but it contains money. It contains plastics, it contains foam.
``We look at shredder residue not as a waste stream, but as a resource.''
And from the small town of Ieper in western Belgium - more known as a World War I battlefield than the home of technology start-ups - Salyp is running a pilot plant to prove its belief that recycling the residue makes economic sense, and is not merely an environmental showcase.
By the end of this year, the company will go into full 24-hour production separating out plastics, foam and metal from the scrap - also called fluff — to continue proving out its belief in the system.
The firm is an unusual ambassador for recycling. Salyp is backed by the Saelens family, which built a wide-ranging business based in Belgium including a new and used auto parts sales company. In the late 1990s, founder Hubert Saelens became interested in auto recycling and Vanherpe, a managing director of one of the holding companies, launched the corporate study.
He found that although there was an established auto recycling industry, it focused on the heavy metals that make up more than 70 percent of the car by weight. But 3 million metric tons (6.6 billion pounds) of other potentially recyclable material went to waste in Western Europe alone, considered too difficult or expensive to separate.
Researchers were on the case of finding automated separation techniques for a variety of those materials, though, and Salyp was born to pull together those various programs.
``We don't come out of the plastics industry, we don't come out of the shredder residue industry,'' Vanherpe said. ``We were looking at everything completely new.''
The new directive in the European Union overseeing disposal of vehicles at the end of their life has added interest to maneuvers aimed at recovering goods from shredder fluff.
By 2006, EU has called for industry to reclaim 85 percent of the materials in a car - by weight - at the end of its life. By 2015, that number climbs to 95 percent.
Standard recycling techniques claim about 75 percent of the weight from the metals alone.
``The 85 percent will be accomplished fairly easily, just from the metals and glass,'' said Arjen Sevenster, manager of technical and environmental affairs for the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers in Brussels, Belgium. ``That is not the major concern. But going beyond, you must be able to recycle the plastics.''
Salyp began by signing a license with Argonne National Laboratory - the Argonne, Ill.-based facility operated by the University of Chicago for the U.S. Department of Energy - for its automated program to clean urethane foam sorted out of the waste stream to a standard ready for use on applications such as carpet backing.
That would cover less than 5 percent of the material in a metric ton of ASR, though, prompting Salyp to continue its research.
Salyp, though, is not a technology powerhouse on its own. Instead, it has gathered research, studies and techniques from a variety of operations to coordinate in one consolidated program.
In addition to the Argonne-developed system, there are machines by Central Manufacturing Co. Inc. of Groveland, Ill., and Separation Systems Engineering GmbH of Germany for various sorting programs. Each unit in a Salyp-coordinated package comes with a theme name based on constellations, such as Hercules and Aquarius.
Money in the scrap
Tied together in one low-maintenance system - and with minimal staffing requirements - the company has successfully mined the scrap for real money.
On average, 1 metric ton of ASR has an average yield of 2 percent of copper wire, which sells, on average, for more than $400 per metric ton. Nearly 3 percent is PU foam, valued at about $100 per metric ton; 4 percent is iron and steel that auto yards couldn't access through normal procedures, worth about $60 per metric ton.
About 8 percent is mixed thermoplastics, which Vanherpe said the company can sell for about $70 per metric ton - even without further separation. The firm has successfully pulled both PVC and polyolefins out of the mixed plastics scrap line, however.
To make the economics work out even better, auto recyclers will pay to have the fluff hauled away. Entrepreneurs can access the ASR by slightly undercutting the cost scrap yards normally would pay to landfills to dispose of the material.
Items not recycled can be either taken to municipal energy generation plants, which are common in Europe, or head into a landfill once stripped of anything of value.
For an original investment of the Salyp-licensed program and equipment of about $3.5 million, a recycler can recoup costs within just a few years, Vanherpe maintains.
But the industry is not taking off yet. Auto yards are not interested, since it falls outside their regular operating procedure. Plastics recycling businesses have not shown any interest because of the mix of other materials.
``This is a question of educating the industry,'' Vanherpe said. ``Everybody supposes that there is nothing in [ASR], that there is nothing you can do with it. Or they think they cannot get anything out of it without a lot of handwork.''
But Salyp is not alone in chasing the concept.
It has signed with 21st Century Polymers & Associates Inc. to market the concept in North America, where outsiders are expressing interest - even if they have not put down any dollars yet.
Automakers through the Vehicle Recycling Partnership are working with molders to make and test parts produced with plastics siphoned from the ASR by Salyp.
The American Plastics Council and the Vehicle Recycling Partnership also are set to sign a five-year cooperative research and development agreement with Argonne National Laboratories tied into the same system Salyp uses.
``The opportunities looking ahead are amazing,'' Vanherpe said. ``The market is getting ready to grab onto this. It's just a matter of time.''