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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Environment : The Pressure Mounts to Recycle Used Vehicles : As junkyard graves fill up, auto makers search for new ways to build reusability into their products at the factory cradle.

March 01, 1994|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Landshut, Germany, engineers painstakingly dismantle BMWs that have come to the end of the road. Like forensic surgeons performing an autopsy, they drain the tired hulks of fluids, strip off the metallic skins and remove engines and other vital components.

Each part is carefully labeled and set aside--metals in one pile, plastics in another, rubber and glass into others. All that is left is a steel skeleton.

The detritus is then sent to recyclers, modern-day alchemists whose job is to find a future for the used material.

The process is repeated over and over in Landshut--and in other pilot plants set up by BMW in the United States, Europe and Japan--as the German luxury car maker tries to fathom how to recycle a larger portion of the materials in scrapped vehicles.

"We are gaining experience and knowledge that we are transferring into the design of our vehicles," said Karl-Heinz Ziwica, general manager of environmental engineering at BMW of North America.

Today about 94% of scrapped vehicles are subjected to some amount of recycling, and about 75% of the material in those vehicles is reused. Most of the reusable matter is steel and other metals that make up a car's structural frame and major components, such as engines, transmissions and generators.

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The remainder consists of plastics, fluids, rubber, glass and other materials that are more difficult to separate and recycle. These materials, shredded into waste known as fluff, usually end up in landfills.

The amount of fluff disposed of each year is enormous. About 30 million vehicles are scrapped worldwide annually, according to auto makers and recyclers, and each can generate up to 600 pounds of non-salvageable waste. Pressure to recycle a greater portion of vehicles is increasing as landfill space diminishes.

Nowhere is the pressure greater than in Europe. Landfills are in short supply, costs of disposing of fluff--often contaminated with operating fluids--is rising, and political calls for more complete recycling are mounting.

In Germany, the strength of the Greens Party with its strong environmental agenda has led to regulations mandating car recycling. There, and in the rest of the European Union, each car manufacturer is considered responsible for its vehicles from the factory cradle to the junkyard grave.

Already, regulations have been proposed requiring car owners to take clunkers to recycling centers and obtain a certificate of disposal--essentially a death certificate issued by an official car coroner attesting that the vehicle was given a proper burial.

Facing the threat of stricter regulation, car makers in Europe, Japan and the United States are stepping up recycling research--focusing on developing new dismantling techniques, designing vehicles for easy disassembly and finding new uses for plastics and other materials.

"Vehicle recycling is a worldwide issue because auto makers are sending their cars throughout the world," said Susan Yester, chairwoman of the Vehicle Recycling Project, a joint research effort of Detroit's auto makers.

In Japan, Toyota operates its own auto recycling plant. It also has a demonstration project in Europe to which its 870 German dealers send scrapped polypropylene bumpers. They are then ground up and remolded into new bumpers for the Carina E, a mid-size sedan sold in Britain.

"The company has a goal to get from 75% to 85% recycling of auto parts by 2000," said Jim Olsen, vice president of Toyota's U.S. subsidiary.

The biggest challenge to recycling plastic parts is finding applications and markets for the new products. This requires looking beyond the auto industry. "Auto parts do not have to be recycled into autos," said Yester.

Other options are already being examined. Some plastic parts are ground up and used as an additive to strengthen concrete. The Big Three use recycled soft-drink bottles made out of the plastic resin polyethylene terephthalate for luggage racks and other parts on some new models.

In the United States, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors formed a consortium in 1991 to study ways to increase the amount of a vehicle that is recycled. Recently, the partnership opened a recycling research center in Highland Park, Mich., to dismantle up to 500 vehicles a year.

The Big Three are focusing on the recycling of plastics. They are conducting research with the American Plastics Council, representing 27 major resin producers, and the Automotive Recyclers Assn., the trade group for many of the nation's 12,000 junkyard operators.

Today, the average car contains about 245 pounds of plastics, about 8% of a typical vehicle's total body weight. That is up from an average of 60 pounds two decades ago. The amount of plastic is expected to continue to increase as demand for strong, lightweight materials grows to meet higher fuel-efficiency standards.

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