America's Recylables Hit The Highway

What are the most recycled consumer products in the nation?

If you guessed aluminum cans and mixed paper - guess again. Cars and trucks, in fact, lead the race.

At least 75 percent of a scrapped vehicle's weight, including iron, steel, aluminum and copper, as well as the engine, transmission, catalytic converter and radiator, is reused.

However, the other 25 percent (plastics, textiles, rubber, adhesives, paint, glass and composites) typically is landfilled.

In an attempt to prevent these remaining materials from entering the waste stream, many automakers are developing new recovery and recycling technologies.

Toyota Motor Corp., for example, has begun to sort and extract polyurethane foam and fabric granules from scrapped automotive shredder residue.

The sorted materials are used to mass produce automotive, matlining, soundproof products.

Elsewhere, the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), in a project led by the Chrysler Corp., has initiated a study to perform a materials separation study at MBA Polymers Inc., Berkeley, Calif., according to the American Plastics Council, Washington D.C.

MBA will study several Chrysler subsystems, includeing instrument panel assemblies, door trim panels and bumper fascias. The study reportedly will help Chrysler and the VRP determine what materials can be mechanically separated, reused and recycled.

In addition, the Vehicle Recycling Development Center (VRDC) will benchmark vehicle recycling design guidelines also under development with MBA Polymers. Managed by Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, the VRDC reportedly was instituted to develop automotive recycling technology.

The Ford Motor Co. contributes to waste diversion by constructing more readily recyclable cars from the start. For example, Ford's Explorer, Ranger, Contour and Mercury Mystiqare approximately 80 percent recyclable.

Recycled materials currently used by Ford include old plastic bumpers, recycled battery housings, used water cooler bottles, plastic bottle caps, old telephone books and computer housings. In addition, more than 50 million recycled plastic soda bottles are used each year to create grille reinforcements, luggage rack side-rails and door padding (see diagram).

Plastic seat covers, which protect vehicle seat backs as they travel from assembly plants to customers, are made from recycled plastics from Ford's own manufacturing processes. Used steel drums for raw materials are cleaned, crushed and sent to Ford's foundries to be turned into new steel. Likewise, sand used in molds and cores for casting engine blocks and other parts are recycled into paving and building materials.

In an effort to develop technology to turn old tires into new ones, Michelin, a French tire manufacturer, and Ford are collaborating in a research program. Although scrap tires have been recycled into various products such as step-in plates and parking brake pads for years, a breakthrough is needed to recycle old tires into materials that can be used in new ones.

The researchers currently are not able to break down a tire's chemical components after it has been manufactured. Once a tire has been molded by heat into its proper shape, its chemical makeup goes through dramatic changes, making the tire difficult to reuse.

Fortunately, initial tests prove that new tires can use up to 10 percent recycled rubber without sacrificing tire durability or driving performance. In the future, the research team will be experimenting with ways to incorporate this recycled tire rubber into various parts of new tires, building prototype tires and testing them on the road. Next, they will work to refine the tire's formulation, plan manufacturing facilities and begin long-term durability and quality testing in a Michelin evaluation fleet of Ford vehicles.

Although recycled tires are not likely to be seen on new Fords for at least five years, the investment could be well worth the delay. Positive results could reduce the number of tires being landfilled in the United States by as much as 30 million annually.