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GloboCars: THE NEXT CENTURY : Recycling

March 01, 1994

Auto recycling actually dates to the Model T, says Ford Motor Co. Magnate Henry Ford built floor boards from wooden boxes used to ship bearings to his factory. Today, about 75% of the average automobile, mostly metals, is recycled. The rest, mostly plastics, is posing challenges to engineers and drawing fire from environmentalists.

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Average car disposal

Recycled steel, iron: 70.4% Non-recycled plastics, fluids, rubber, glass, other: 24.0% Recycled aluminum, copper, lead, zinc: 5.6%

The Traditional System

The end of the road for most old cars is a dismantler. Here is the usual process:

1) Stripping: Components that can be reconditioned, such as the engine, or sold for materials, such as the catalytic converter, are removed.

2) Smashing: The remainder of the car is flattened and put through a rotary shredder, reducing it to fist-sized pieces.

3) Metal extracting: Pieces are rolled under magnets, which extract iron and steel for sale to steel mills.

4) Sifting: Pieces are sifted or sometimes sorted by hand; heavy metals such as aluminum fall to the bottom.

5) Dumping: The rest, including plastics, rubber and glass, is called "fluff" and goes to landfills.

The New System

In an ideal future, old cars would be dismantled and 100% recycled at recycling plants.

1. Deregistration: Car owner takes old car to recycling plant. 2. Fluid removal: Oil, brake and other fluids, coolant, refrigerant are extracted. 3. Stripping: Components that can be sold as-is or reconditioned, such as the engine, are removed. 4. Disassembly: All plastic parts, rubber and glass are removed. 5. Final processing: Plastics and glass are sent to other plants for grinding and remolding. Metal is sent to steel mills. Rubber is shredded and reprocessed. Little is wasted.

The Plastics Problem

Plastics are ever-growing components of cars, but they are hard to recycle. They come in many chemical formulas, often incompatible. So, two parts can't be remolded together to make a third. Or the parts are contaminated with oil or painted. Or they may be combined with metal parts and impossible to separate. Some Solutions:

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Regranulation: Plastics can be ground up and remolded to make new parts. This is already done by BMW and the Big Three. As an example, BMW takes components from air intake manifolds and processes them to help make camshaft covers.

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Design for dismantling: In 1988, BMW devised the Z1 roadster with an all-plastic body that was easily disassembled from the metal chassis. This allows plastic to be separated from metal and reprocessed.

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Bottles to parts: Used bottles are gathered an ground into pellets, which are then combined with 35% glass and mineral. The result is a plastic that is then used by car companies to make side rails, window guides, luggage racks, tail lights, splash shields and other parts for new cars.

Repair: A plastic part may be salvageable for the used-parts market, either as-is or with repairs of cracks and other damage.

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Source: Automotive Industries (September, 1992), BMW AG, Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp.

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