Portland, Pa.-based Ultra-Poly Corp. and the Plastics Industry Association have developed a process to collect and recycle plastic automotive bumper covers in a way that is "economically feasible" for businesses.
Ultra-Poly will "easily" process 1 million pounds of bumper facias this year, said Kevin Cronin, vice president of sustainability and research and development, and it is hoping to someday reach "around 10 million pounds."
Now, the compounder is working to create enough demand to reach higher volumes. Eventually, Cronin said, he believes "there's 10 [million] to 15 million pounds that are accessible to [Ultra-Poly], with a little bit of work."
The secret, he said, lies in collection strategies that Ultra-Poly plans to build out "so that it is less regional and we're able to pull from further distances."
Automotive scrap yards, a traditional source for out-of-use bumper fascias, ended up being a "significant hill to climb" in project development, Cronin said.
"An awful lot of stuff is left on the fascia," he said, like turn-signal lamps, headlights, embedded mounting brackets and wiring harnesses. Scrap and recycling yards often don't have an economic incentive to separate the materials, Cronin added.
A better source for the fascias, he said, are automotive repair shops, where "anything that can be salvaged of the fascia … all gets taken off and reused."
"Auto body shops have dumpsters filled with bumpers that they don't want to have to pay to get [into a] landfill," said Patrick Krieger, director of sustainability and materials at the Washington-based plastics trade group. "Companies also don't want to have to buy those back from auto body shops."
These bumpers, Cronin said, are "significantly more stripped down" with "smaller amounts of contamination … that can be relatively easily removed" with mechanical recycling processes and metal separation technology.
Ultra-Poly also evaluated the physical characteristics of the bumper material in two forms for potential product applications — pellets from bumpers with paint on them, and pellets from bumpers without paint — because "processing makes cost," Krieger said.
"When you take paint off, you create another stream of waste to deal with," Cronin said. "If there's enough outlet for the material without having to do that, it makes more sense to do it that way."
None of the bumper program materials that Ultra-Poly is working on currently are capable of going into a Class A automotive finish, he said. "But they could certainly go into other applications on a vehicle where a Class A finish is not necessary."
Ultra-Poly is using the material as a component in compounds for products like dunnage, bins and totes, Cronin said.
"We are endeavoring to expand the program to significant enough volumes that we can continue to work on the technical cleanup of the material," he said. "We're pretty confident we're going to be able to get [the material] back into automobiles … when we are able to collect this stuff at significant volumes."
The Plastics Industry Association's New End Market Opportunities program has been working to address logistical and technical challenges of recycling plastic products in various supply chains, Krieger said, by providing collaboration and information from other associations that are "subject-matter experts."
"[Cronin] had to create this collection stream himself," Krieger said. "He took the information, he did a lot of creative problem-solving, and the end result is a product stream that's great. … Hopefully other [companies] can take a lesson from that."
Large quantities of bumper fascias need to be consolidated by compacting them "on the spot" at pickup, Cronin said, and "get them back in a quantity that makes sense."
"You have to be able to get the material to your building economically," he said. "That requires some ingenuity … and the ability to have multiple stakeholders.
"There have been a number of attempts to do this," Cronin said. "Without that strong market pull through, which really comes from exposure through an organization like [the association] and having that direct feedback from OEMs and other users, that creates the impetus to make sure programs like this can see the light of day."
'We're pretty confident we're going to be able to get [the material] back into automobiles … when we are able to collect this stuff at significant volumes.'