A cooperative research project backed by the plastics industry, automakers and the U.S. government is looking to reduce the amount of automotive plastics ending up in landfills and instead divert it back into cars.
The American Plastics Council, the auto industry's Vehicle Recycling Partnership and the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory unveiled an upgraded pilot recycling unit Dec. 2 at the laboratory in Argonne, Ill.
Each group will chip in to fund the project's $2 million annual budget for a five-year study using the shredder residue that is left over from automotive scrap yards once the bulk of the iron and steel is removed from cars.
From that collection of torn plastics, fabric, copper wiring, foam and various other bits of trash, researchers aim to separate out nine different plastics in pure enough streams to make them viable for use in other car parts.
The system shows promise in small research studies, but the groups must show it can work on larger scales if they expect to make a business case for both the recyclers who would have to invest in automated separation techniques and molders who may want to use the recovered material.
``There is many a slip betwixt a benchtop study and a full-scale model,'' said Harvey Drucker, associate laboratory director at Argonne, during a Dec. 2 telephone interview.
The research agency has studied ways to separate out individual thermoplastics from the waste stream for more than 20 years, focusing at different times on the scrap from cars, computers and home appliances. Automotive scrap is one of the biggest sources of post-consumer plastics headed to landfills.
While auto scrap yards remove the bulk of the iron and steel from cars now, about 25 percent of the vehicle weight is a combination of materials - including plastics - that ends up in landfills.
Japanese and European legislators and automakers have pushed for greater use of those materials at the end of vehicle life, but so far the United States has not had the regulatory or economic pressures to bring those same concerns to North America.
The cooperative research aims to change that by finding if there is a real business case out there that would turn a profit for recycling programs from shredder residue.
APC's auto group specifically has targeted improved recycling programs as part of its long-term strategy, while the Vehicle Recycling Partnership - part of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research - likewise has been working on ways to use more of a vehicle at the end of its life.
``Part of this is to be able to pre-empt a legislative mandate about auto recycling,'' said James J. Kolb, vice president-automotive for APC. ``We want to have a solution available. The APC can take this under its wing.''
Argonne scientists have ways now to separate out nine individual resin blends from a mixed assortment of plastics through automated systems. They must determine, however, how well those techniques work on the type of large scales needed to make economic sense.
``[Molders] don't want 15 grams of a material, they want 400 pounds or 500 pounds or a ton,'' Drucker said.
The laboratory is ramping up to process 4-6 tons of residue per hour - the equivalent of the scrap coming from about 16 vehicles per hour.
That amount still is less than the waste stream coming from a full-scale auto recycler - capable of processing 40 vehicles per hour - but an improvement from earlier versions that handled a few pounds at a time. The lab has about 20 people assigned to the research.
Through APC and automakers, the scientists also can work with molders that can determine the purity of the plastics pulled through the automated sorting programs and find specific places on the car where those materials can be used, Drucker said.
``Vehicle recycling can be a self-sustaining process that pays for itself in the U.S.,'' said Mike Fisher, APC technology director.
``This is an example to my mind of how science applied results in products that people can drive, that they can walk on and put their frozen TV dinner in,'' Drucker said. ``It's got a real end purpose.''