Nashville, Tenn. — A project to capture and recycle plastic bumpers has proven successful, and participants now want to expand the work to eventually create a widespread impact on automotive plastic recovery.
The Plastics Industry Association is out with details from efforts to remove and recycle thermoplastic polyolefin bumpers from vehicles at salvage yards.
“If you are seeking non-traditional opportunities for recycled plastics, you really need to take non-traditional approaches,” Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability for the association, said at the Plastics Recycling 2018 conference in Nashville.
The project shows that TPO bumpers, which can weigh 20 pounds or so, can be effectively removed and diverted before vehicles are sent to auto shredders.
The giant shredders are optimized to rip apart and recover ferrous and non-ferrous metals, which make up the vast majority of a vehicle's weight. But the mixed material stream that remains is rendered valueless.
With a typical vehicle including about 250 pounds of plastics, the plastics industry sees value in trying to capture portions of this stream before the shredding process.
Bumpers, because of their weight, homogeneous resin content and relative ease of removal, provided researchers a logical place to start.
“The TPO bumper is attractive because it's on the outside of the vehicle,” said David Wagger, director of environmental impact for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a partner in the project.
The first phase, Holmes said, was proving the concept.
“We need to make sure this is scalable. We have been assured the demand is there if we can turn on the faucet,” Holmes said.
With the first phase completed, work will now move to material testing with three different resin recyclers.
If further work proves successful, Holmes said she sees this project as “stepping stone to further opportunities in auto plastics recycling.”
“Plastics are rising slowly but unevenly,” said Wagger, in their automotive use. “We think the trend will continue.”
ISRI has long recognized that automotive plastics represents a good recycling opportunity, but federal law prohibits its reuse once it is shredded and contaminated.
“There's a lot of material out there, and there's certainly an opportunity,” Wagger said.
Geo-Tech Polymers LLC of Waverly, Ohio, reprocessed the initial 5,000 pounds of recovered bumpers.
“We have not seen any reduction in the performance or increase in liability as we bring it in to the automotive marketplace or any other marketplace,” Geo-Tech CEO Sanjay Dutta said.
Quality is not an issue, he said. The problem is volume.
“Scale-up is critical to provide lower costs,” he said. “As we go forward, one of the advantages is finding other applications” for the recycled resin, including consumer products, decorative seasonal items and furniture.
The resin also is appropriate for “non-critical” automotive parts, project backers said.
While the first phase of the work involved gaining a basic understanding of the recyclability of TPO bumpers, the second and current phase will look to broaden research across three processors. This work is “really about testing marketability and making sure that different batches going to different processors are going to be not exactly the same results, but within a reasonable range of properties,” Holmes said.
The second phase also will allow closer work with ISRI members to help ensure supply.
“We're creating a new opportunity for what I think is a very valuable stream of material. This basically was just a lost opportunity [before]. Not only is it exciting for the material, but for the potential for the future recovery of plastics out of automobiles,” Holmes said. “It really has proved the concept.”
A third phase later this year aims to create a road map to create demand for the recycled resin.