Recycling

Q: Are all plastic products introduced in your site recycled, or can they be made from recycled material? Is the quality of the goods made from recycled material as good as those made from virgin material?

A: Technically, nearly all thermoplastic resins can be readily recycled. However, theory and actual practice may be in conflict in some instances. In general, 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, glycol). The questions you ask are quite complex and are being addressed by a large number of people and companies.

Q: What is the collection infrastructure for plastic waste from car batteries?

A: In the United States, the collection infrastructure for end-of-life car batteries is such that over 95% of used automotive batteries are recycled for their lead, sulfuric acid, and polypropylene content. Since the recycling of lead is highly regulated, only three companies do approximately 90% of the car battery recycling. These are KW Plastics, Exide Corporation, and Resource Plastics. The polypropylene from end-of-life batteries (over 100 million pounds/yr) finds many markets, including automotive. The cost of recycling car batteries is partly covered by advanced disposal fees and/or take back fees. This is acceptable in order to ensure that the lead is properly managed, but it does help to "subsidize" the cost of the PP recycling.

Q: What is the collection infrastructure for end-of-life plastic car bumpers?

A: There is little infrastructure in place at the present time in the North America for the commercial recycling of plastics from end-of-life vehicle (ELV) car bumpers. The recycling of TPO from post-industrial (pre-consumer) bumper scrap is growing both for painted and unpainted TPO. Some recycling of pre-consumer PC/PBT bumpers has been done in the past. Little recycling of PUR RIM pre-consumer bumper scrap is occurring. There appears to be excellent markets for pre-consumer, reclaimed TPO bumper scrap.

ELV car bumpers are being recycled to a very limited extent and can best be described as still at the pilot and demonstration stage. The economics to collect, sort, and process very old bumpers for their plastic content are not very favorable.

One company that is doing pre-consumer TPO bumper recycling and some post-consumer TPO bumper recycling is American Commodities, Inc. A couple of other companies are beginning to enter this business claiming to be able to address paint removal issues with proprietary technology.

Q: On your website you mention a new revolutionary process for recycling bumpers. What is this process and what company is it available from?

A: The innovative and major recycling breakthrough process that removes paint from plastic (see: plastic car bumpers & fascia systems) is a process by American Commodities, Inc.

At the 1998 SPE Automotive Awards in Detroit, Visteon was awarded the recycling award as the first supplier to implement a recycling program that uses painted TPO scrap to produce new bumper fascias. Collected from salvage yards, the reclaimed material is reused in production at blends ranging from 20 to 100 percent. Post-industrial recycled TPO has been tested extensively by Visteon engineers to ensure that it maintains bumper durability, performance and appearance. Tests revealed that post-industrial recycled TPO performs exactly like virgin material with additional benefits of helping to protect the environment and save money. Visteon is now recycling one million pounds of painted TPO parts a year, saving $250,000 in new material and landfill disposal costs as well as tons of plastic formerly destined for landfills. Visteon projects that the innovative process will enable the benefits to increase fourfold in 1999 and eventually lead to the elimination of landfill disposal of TPO fascia all together. (Source: SPE Automotive Division).

Q: I am looking for companies that are interested in purchasing scrap rubber and plastic automobile bumpers, providing a means of shredding the material, or want the shredded material.

A: To find a buyer for scrap rubber and plastic, try the Recycled Plastics Market Database. You may also want to visit the website of the Automotive Recyclers Association.

Q: How is the automotive industry addressing the increased use of plastics in automobiles, and end-of-life auto recycling?

A: The question you ask is one that is engaging many scientists and engineers in the automotive and plastics industries. In the U.S., the Plastics Division of ACC collaborates with the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), which is sponsored by USCar, a consortium of the "Big Three" U.S. automakers and the U.S. government. For over 5 years the VRP has supported and conducted research to develop plastics recycling technologies for end-of-life vehicles with the goal of developing economically sustainable technologies. So far, some of the plastics separation technologies look promising while others do not. However, both dismantling techniques and plastics identification and separation technologies continue to be evaluated.

To put automotive plastics recycling in perspective, consider the following:
  1. Automotive plastics have contributed to reducing the weight of automobiles by 500 to 750 pounds, depending on the vehicle. A rough rule of thumb is that a 10% reduction in weight improves gas mileage by about 6%. Thus, the use of plastics (about 257 lbs/vehicle) significantly improves mileage, reducing greenhouse gases. 
  2. Over 85% of the energy consumed during the life of a vehicle occurs during its useful life (gas, oil, maintenance). So weight reduction brought about by using plastics significantly reduces the total energy consumption of a vehicle. 
  3. Automotive plastics make up about 0.5% by weight of a landfill. Despite this low number, automotive and plastic companies are striving to reduce that amount.
Q: Which polymers are recyclable, which aren't and why? What are the major factors that contribute to the cost of recycling polymers?

A: There are about 39 different types of basic plastics used to make an automobile today. About 75% of the plastic (by weight) is supplied by about 10 of these plastics. All the polymers are technically capable of being recycled; however, in the vast majority of cases, the cost to separate and clean each polymer costs much more than purchasing new virgin plastic. Automakers and the Plastics Division of ACC 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. Also, over 95% of battery cases are recycled—mainly because of federal requirements to recover the lead.

Automakers are increasingly requiring recycled content in its auto parts, both in metal and plastics. However, they will not pay higher prices for recycled plastics.

To put things in perspective, the greatest values plastics bring to automobiles are their lightweight characteristics and their potential for part consolidation. Since about 85% of the energy consumed during a car's life occurs during its use phase, the lightweight plastics significantly improve gas mileage, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: How many miles does a typical car have to be driven so that the gasoline saved by weight reduction through plastics is equivalent to all the plastics in the car?

A: A typical North American car weighs about 3200 pounds, which includes about 250 pounds of plastic. Every pound of plastic on a car replaced 2 to 3 pounds of another material. (Therefore, without plastic, a car would weigh from 3450 to 3700 lb.) A conservative rule of thumb is that a 10% reduction in weight yields a 6% improvement in gas mileage. You can use this "rule" in combination with the CAFE mileage standards to calculate how much gas is saved, since all car and light truck fleets are pushing the limit of the CAFE mileage limits.

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