The niche of automobile parts recycling is in its infancy, but has the potential to become a growing market.
Currently, there is no uniform recovery system and cost, technical and operational challenges are barriers to creating one. So the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) has partnered with the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), the Automotive Recyclers of Canada and the Canadian Plastics Industry Association to go about paving the way for increased auto parts recycling.
The groups’ joint Automotive End-of-Life Vehicles Recycling Demonstration project has three main goals, according to Kim Holmes, SPI’s senior director of recycling and diversion
“We hope to work with ARA to inform their members about new opportunities to recover plastic parts before sending vehicles to shred,” Holmes says. “We hope to identify plastic recyclers that can process these parts. And we hope to establish a scalable recovery and recycling system for the Canadian and U.S. auto recovery industry.”
The largest challenge is that materials are mixed together and not easily separated. Automobiles are typically recycled via shredding. The metals are separated leaving shredder residue. This residue contains the plastic and rubber hoses and seat cushions, among other materials, says Steve Alexander, president and CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR).
The pilot is focused on bumpers only, deemed a good initial focal point as they are a uniform material of substantial weight. They are also easy to get to and plastics recyclers are familiar with the polymers used in bumpers.
Gary Beagell, CEO of Gary’s U-Pull-It in Binghamton, N.Y., is participating in the pilot. The auto parts and recycler has removed 4,000 pounds of bumpers in one month.
The company made 1,000-lb. bales and shipped them to plastics processors. Some of the material has metal attachments or tail lights left. Participating processors have yet to confirm if they can put the materials through their shredders and end up with a valuable, reusable material.
“We can get them off in enough time if they can accept them the way we sent them. It would take us much longer and probably not be economically feasible if it had to be further separated,” says Beagell.
The auto recycling industry and plastic recycling industry are motivated to make it work as more parts are developed with plastics. This trend is being driven by technology that improves the strength of plastics relative to steel and aluminum.
Major original equipment managers are behind the move to pump use of postconsumer recycled content in their products—and to design new vehicles to make it easier to do.
“While they could get these materials from any plastics, the beauty of a system … where material is coming from their autos is an attractive way to meet their own recycling needs,” says Kendra Martin, SPI’s senior director industry affairs for brand owners. “They are thinking of their customers who want more sustainable products. So we are looking to address the whole life cycle by putting plastics in new automobiles and recovering them at the end of life.”
The final report on the pilot will be consolidated with data from both the Canadian and U.S. projects. The goal is to help guide recyclers in both regions in designing a uniform way to recover and ship materials.
The plan is to eventually determine what materials may be able to be added to bumpers and co-processed.
Before successful, large-scale programs can be implemented, says Alexander, processes need to be developed to mechanically separate these materials.
“Maybe optical sorting is part of the solution. Or a method developed to remove components before shredding, as the battery and fuel tank are done today.”
Meanwhile the evolution of automotive manufacturing has meant increasing volumes of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and other lightweight materials with potential for an eventual second life.
“What we send to shredders becomes fluff which ends up in landfills,” says Virginia Whelan, a consultant to ARA.
“Anything we can do upstream to prevent this is a huge service.”