Ever looked at the vehicles stacked on top of each other in a junkyard and thought, "Wow, that’s a whole lot of cars?" Now think about the end-of-life vehicles 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 are 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. 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 a vehicle by weight. Plastics and polyurethane foams from seats and dashboards become ASR, but other indigestible material, including glass and dirt, gets thrown into the hopper as well. We produce 2 billion pounds of ASR annually.
There are no proposed automotive recycling laws in the U.S. supply and demand rules, buffeted by market forces. But a coalition called the Vehicle Recycling Partnership, which includes the Big Three automakers, is working with the Department of Energy and the American Plastics Council to try to increase the percentage of auto waste that avoids the landfill as a final resting place.
We will have challenges ahead. The department’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 that will have to be dealt with.
To see what progress they’re making, I visited a plastics sorting pilot plant on the grounds of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. Project Manager Sam Jody made us all put on hardhats and take a look at large containers filled with unprocessed ASR scrap 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.
Foam is 5 percent of ASR by weight, but 30 percent by volume, so it’s fortunate that it, too, can be reclaimed and rebonded. 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 is 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 team is in the midst of a five-year Cooperative Research and Development Agreement that is developing "preferred practices" for recycling, studying separation technologies and efficient fluid removal. With luck, the work will move out of the pilot plant and test lab and into the real world.