Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: The Auto Industry Ratchets Up Recycling

ARGONNE, ILLINOIS—The spinning drum didn’t look like much, but by sorting one form of scrap from another it was pointing the way to an important new frontier for recycling. Here on the grounds of the Argonne National Laboratories near Chicago, a pilot recycling plant is trying to convince cars to go the extra mile in donating their rusting carcasses to new products. The goal? The fully recycled automobile.

Argonne's Sam Jody shows how auto scrap becomes useful products.© Argonne Labs

There are 210 million vehicles on the road in the U.S., with about 15 million added each year. Ever looked at the vehicles stacked on top of each other in a junkyard and wondered what happened to them? Now think about the end of life vehicles (ELV) from sea to shining sea—about 15 million of them every year—and you begin to understand the scope of our disposal problem.

Fortunately, the scrap metal from American cars and trucks is a valuable commodity, so 75 percent of the materials from the average vehicle get recycled. Ninety five percent of all cars go through the recycling process, and that produces an average of more than 14 million tons of scrap steel annually. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Well, it could be better. The European Union and Japanese government are phasing in laws that mandate an even higher recycled percentage, up to 95 percent. To attain that goal, they’ll have to get creative with the usually landfilled Automotive Shredder Residue (ASR), also known as “fluff,” which constitutes 25 percent of the vehicle by weight. Plastics and polyurethane foams from seats and dashboards become ASR, but other undigestible material (including glass and dirt) gets thrown into the hopper as well. We produce two billion pounds of ASR annually.

The European Union’s ELV directive puts the industry on notice with some tough deadlines. With some exemptions, automakers had to phase out heavy metals such as mercury, lead and hexavalent chromium in 2003. By January 1, 2006, their subcontractors must be ready to recover and reuse 85 percent of the materials in each car (including five percent that can be converted to energy). In 2007, networks set up by the carmakers in 24 EU member states must be ready to take in all end-of-life vehicles, regardless of age, at no cost to the car’s last owner. In 2015, the percentage mandated for recovery jumps to 95 percent.

The European laws will push environmentally friendly design innovation. Meeting the 85 percent recycling target for 2006 will be easier for automakers that plan their cars with the legislation in mind. As a PriceWaterhouseCoopers analysis noted, “Manufacturers see their responsibility in the upstream phase of the vehicle life-cycle, namely designing for the environment, increasing recyclability and meeting the July 2003 ban on hazardous materials.”

© Argonne Labs

There are no proposed automotive recycling laws in the U.S., and one would be unlikely to get through in a climate where even most increases in the fuel-economy mandates go down to routine defeat. Supply and demand rules, buffeted by market forces. But a coalition called the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (including the Big Three automakers, who work together in the U.S. Council for Automotive Research) is working with the Department of Energy (DOE) and the American Plastics Council to try and increase the percentage of auto waste that avoids the landfill as a final resting place.

We will have challenges ahead. The DOE’s Joe Carpenter researches ultra-light materials like carbon fiber that could reduce a car’s weight by 40 to 50 percent within the next decade, but recycling the stuff will be difficult. Hybrid technology may produce Substances of Concern (SOCs) that will have to be dealt with.

Cars were once made of steel, iron, wood and leather. Today, they have an average of 240 pounds of plastic (up from 60 pounds in 1970) in them. Plastics represent an amazing 50 percent of material volume in today’s vehicles, though less than five percent of their weight. That’s helped new cars drop 400 pounds on average since the mid-1980s, but it presents some significant hurdles when a wide variety of unmarked plastics get used.

To see what progress they’re making in straightening all this out, I visited the aforementioned plastics sorting pilot plant on the Argonne grounds. Project manager Sam Jody made us all put on hard hats and take a look at large containers filled with unprocessed ASR scrap (nasty stuff with visible tire treads and crumbly bits of foam) and its increasingly more refined (and usable) final product. It’s not all that complex: water baths separate the various plastic types. What remains is 95 percent pure polyethylene and polypropylene plastic that can be pelletized and sold. Automotive products that are made of it include knee bolsters and headlight liners.

© Argonne Labs

Foam is five percent of ASR by weight, but 30 percent by volume, so it’s fortunate that it, too, can be reclaimed and rebonded into new under-carpet mats. Overall, 15 to 20 percent of the ASR plastic is currently recoverable, plus 10 to 15 percent of the rubber. Still a fair amount of material going to the landfill, but the process would get the carmakers close to a European-level 85 percent recycling rate. To achieve that, the small-scale pilot plant will have to be ramped up many times over.

The U.S. has huge amounts of remaining landfill space, a fact some observers (notably the New York Times’ John Tierney) use to denigrate recycling efforts here. But American businesses are affected by European laws, and that includes the auto companies. General Motors, for instance, sold 575 Corvettes, 1,000 Cadillacs and 200 Hummers in Europe in the first half of 2005, and its cars will have to be in compliance. DaimlerChrysler sells 100,000 U.S.-made minivans, Jeeps, PT Cruisers and Chrysler 300s annually in Europe, and they need to be fully recyclable.

When will the U.S. reach an 85 percent recycling level? There’s no firm timetable in the partnership’s planning. The team is in the midst of a five-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) that is developing “preferred practices” for recycling, studying separation technologies and efficient fluid removal. With luck, the work will soon move out of the pilot plant and test lab and into the real world.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.


U.S. Council for Automotive Research

Argonne’s pilot plastics sorting plant