Frost & Sullivan Market Insight   Published: 25 Jan 2007
U.S. Automotive Bumper & Related Plastics Recycling
Date Published: 25 Jan 2007

History

Since their widespread introduction and use in automobiles following World War II, plastics have played an increasingly important role in vehicle construction. A typical North American car today weighs about 3,200 pounds, approximately 250 pounds of which is made of some type of plastic. Every pound of plastic on a vehicle replaced 2 to 3 pounds of another material. Without plastics, therefore, cars would be much heavier. Lighter weight translates to better fuel economy. A conservative rule of thumb is that a 10 percent reduction in weight yields a 6 percent improvement in gas mileage and, simultaneously, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the ‘good news’. The ‘bad news’ is that the recycling and reuse of plastics from automobiles continues to pose a major challenge to manufacturers and recyclers alike.

For decades, automotive-manufacturing scrap and post-consumer waste, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE) drink containers have been recompounded into materials for making new car parts. The focus of current research and development, however, is on the end-of-life (EOL) recycling of plastic auto parts.

Batteries

According to the American Plastics Council (APC), in Washington, D.C., and the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), which is composed of Detroit's Big Three auto makers, reclaiming polypropylene (PP) battery cases to make fender liners is the only large-scale example today of EOL automotive plastics’ recycling. In the U.S., the collection infrastructure for EOL car batteries is such that used automotive batteries are recycled not only for the PP, but particularly for their lead and sulfuric acid content. Even this, however, is very restricted due to the highly regulated nature of the lead recycling industry and Federal requirements governing lead recovery.

Chart 1.1 shows the stockpiled automobile battery boxes that are awaiting recycling.

                                          Source: Frost & Sullivan

Of the hundreds of battery recyclers that existed in the U.S. a few years back, less than a handful remain in existence. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has, through its local and state enforcement divisions, made sure that small recyclers cannot afford to handle these materials, as in the past. Horror stories abound about companies suddenly being ‘fined’ into oblivion for storing and processing materials they had handled for years and that now largely have no other home than a landfill. The cost of recycling car batteries is partly covered by advanced disposal fees and/or take back fees, not recycling ‘profits’. This is presumed to be acceptable in order to ensure that the lead is properly managed, but it also helps to ‘subsidize’ the cost of the PP recycling which, in itself, is not profitable. It remains to be seen whether the recovery and reprocessing of bumpers might represent a more successful chapter in ‘closed-loop’ automotive plastics recycling.

Bumpers

Just about any automobile accident results in damage to the bumper. Rather than pay for a brand new expensive bumper, insurance companies prefer to have the bumper repaired. Since the early 1970’s, bumpers have increasingly been made from ‘plastics’ rather than metals. Body shops, however, often do not have the expertise, the time, or the desire to repair plastic bumpers. Their expertise lies in estimating, frame straightening, panel beating, welding, paint mixing, and painting.

Many companies that sell auto body parts, though, discovered early on that they could repair these plastic bumpers. So they established programs of taking in damaged plastic bumpers when they sold new ones to the body shops. It was not long before they were getting a great many bumpers that they could not repair as well as more repairable bumpers than they could sell. The result has been that many bumpers still find their way into landfills.

There are about 39 different types of basic plastics used to make an automobile today. About 75 percent of the plastic (by weight) is supplied by about 10 of these plastics. Plastic bumpers are made of thermoplastic resins comprised primarily of PP, polyurethane (PU), or polycarbonate (PC), with some rubber additives, such as polyphenylene oxide (PPO) added.

Challenges

Theoretically, nearly all thermoplastic resins are recyclable. In the vast majority of cases, however, the cost to segregate and clean each polymer costs much more than purchasing new virgin plastic. For recycled plastics to be useful for new or identical applications, they need to be free of contaminants (dirt, moisture, and other solvents such as water, gasoline, oil, and glycol) and cross-contamination from other resins.

Automakers and the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council have been working for many years to develop economically viable ways to recycle automotive plastics. New technologies are being implemented that recycle bumper fascias and other large parts. Although bumper recycling has been practiced commercially in Europe for several years, little infrastructure yet exists in North America for the commercial recycling of plastics from EOL car bumpers. The U.S. economics to collect, sort, and process very old bumpers for their plastic content is simply not widely favorable.

The ultimate hurdle is one of cost. The auto companies make it clear that they will not pay a premium for reclaimed plastics. In fact, they usually demand to pay less. The APC and VRP are sponsoring efforts to optimize the economics of recycling lower-cost automotive plastics, from design to disassembly and reuse.

These organizations, in collaboration with other industry associations and recyclers, have made significant progress toward large-scale automotive plastics recycling over the past five years. Still, much remains to be done. Ongoing research is aimed at low-cost dismantling, paint removal, separation of different polymers from mixtures, extracting polymers from ASR (automotive shredder residue), and economical polymer identification methods.

The PP bumpers, for example, are semi rigid, the PU ones are very flexible, and the PC bumpers are very rigid. Often times this is the only basis upon which a recycler can initiate identification. Just their shear size often poses difficulties for all but those that possess very large shredding or ‘chopping’ apparatus capable of reducing a whole bumper to small shards.

Chart 1.2 shows the stockpiled automobile bumpers awaiting recycling.

                                           Source: Frost & Sullivan

The VRP also aims to develop materials-selection criteria and design guidelines that will facilitate recycling of future vehicles. The concept is in designing parts that are more recyclable so that process scrap becomes more valuable.

On-going Efforts

In the U.S., one of those in the forefront of bumper recycling efforts is American Commodities, Inc., of Flint, Michigan. The company has been reprocessing post-use Xenoy PC/polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) bumpers for Ford Motor Company and turning them into compounds called Enviraloy. American Commodities use proprietary technologies to remove up to 99.7 percent of paint residue and to ‘rejuvenate’ and enhance material properties. Ford has started to incorporate 25 percent Enviraloy in new Xenoy bumpers and has approved 100 percent Enviraloy in other applications, such as guide brackets. The company, along with others, has learned some hard lessons along the way. PU, for example, cannot be re-melted, and burning it gives off highly noxious, toxic fumes. In addition, relatively low-cost materials like PP and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) cannot currently be reclaimed and still yield a profit. They can, however, be used for blending into higher-value alloys. American Commodities already reclaims PC/ABS and nylon/PPO alloys for Saturn Corporation, a division of General Motors. Material from door skins, rocker panels, fenders, and quarter panels is reprocessed into wheel covers.

Another firm active in bumper recycling is the original maker of the Xenoy material. GE Plastics, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, has been collecting post-use Xenoy bumpers from Ford vehicles and supplying them to Recycling Separation Technologies, Incorporated in Lowell, Massachusetts. Bumpers are ground and subjected to a proprietary cleaning and density separation process, which removes all ferrous and non-ferrous metals, 15 different types of adhesives, up to 40 different types of body fillers and putty, and up to 75 percent of the paint. The purified ‘regrind’ goes back to GE Plastics, which re-compounds it and sells it to Ford for reuse in new bumper fascias.

The Future

Over the years, some of these plastics identification, dismantling, separation and reuse technologies have proven promising while others have not. Vast sums of grant monies have been allocated and distributed to companies that were highly touted and promoted, but that are no longer in business.

Despite the fact that automotive plastics make up only about 0.5 percent, by weight, of landfills, the fact remains that these materials, along with other co-mingled plastics even from curbside recycling programs around the Country continue to go into landfills.

Automakers are increasingly requiring recycled content in their auto parts, both in metals and plastics. The scrap dealers are also looking to minimize the volume of plastics ‘fluff’ from their shredders as well as the high cost of land filling it. Since plastic is a petroleum byproduct, the hike in crude oil prices represents a significant cost in plastics manufacturing. Therefore, as the price gap for manufacturing virgin and recycled materials closes, recycled plastics are expected to become an increasingly attractive alternative than ever before in the marketplace.

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