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Auto and Plastics Industry Working to Recycle More of Cars

March 13, 1994

DETROIT (AP) _ Trying to keep a step ahead of government regulations and anticipate consumer demands, the auto and plastics industries are researching ways to recycle plastics piling up in landfills.

At a 30,000-square-foot plant outside Boston, a pilot project is under way to recycle dashboards, foam seats, carpeting and other plastic snubbed by scrap dealers and junk yards.

″We don’t want the government making regulations. If we can make it economical (to recycle) in the free enterprise system, ... government doesn’t have to make regulations,″ said Al Maten, director of the automotive program for the American Plastics Council, an industry group that represents plastics manufacturers.

″That’s the basis of why we’re doing it.″

The Council has teamed up with a recycling group from the U.S. Big Three automakers and wTe Corp. of Bedford, Mass., for the $2 million recycling project.

Since the plant began operating in December in Dorchester, Mass., engineers have been looking for cheap ways of sorting, separating and grinding down used parts into nearly pure plastic.

The auto industry is already reusing some plastic parts. Ford Motor Co. is recycling plastic bumpers into tail light casings. General Motors Corp.‘s Aurora uses recycled soda pop bottles and carpet scraps in its trunk lining. Chrysler Corp.’s Jeep Renegade uses recycled polyurethane for paneling.

More than 100 million pounds of plastic from old battery casings are recycled into new casings each year.

But some automotive plastic parts are still winding up in the dump. These are the most difficult and expensive to recycle because they are covered by paint, vinyl, glue or complex resins.

It is these stubborn plastics that the Dorchester plant is trying to recycle, by creating machinery to strip away the vinyls and paints. Ultimately, that plastic could be used again in cars, as well as in furniture, household appliances and construction materials.

The plant has collected 100,000 pounds of junk plastic and has the capacity to process 5,000 pounds a day. It is processing much less, however, as machinery is tested and modified.

Once improved machinery is made, wTe Corp. plans to manufacture those recycling machines and sell them to recycling centers and scrap dealers, Maten said.

Within 18 months, the American Plastics Council hopes that some recycling companies, which are now handling only the cleanest of plastics, will have the equipment to recycle highly contaminated plastic, said Jerry Fosnaugh of Dow Chemical Co., chairman of the council’s automotive committee.

″Our goal is to be focused on research and development,″ he said. ″It will be private enterprise that will take the R-and-D that will be publicly available and incorporate it into their recycling business.″

Already, 75 percent of vehicles are being recycled, mostly by scrap dealers who resell parts and shredding companies that sell scrap metal.

The other 25 percent, which includes rubber, glass, plastic and fluids, usually ends up in landfills.

″Steel in automobiles has been widely recycled for a long time, so the plastics industry has a long way to go to catch up,″ said Lance King, community outreach director at Californians Against Waste Foundation, a Sacramento-based lobbying group.

At the Dorchester plant, recycling machines are spitting out nuggets of hard plastic and crumbs of squishy foam from auto parts. The plant has been sending 100-pound samples of that material to plastics and chemical companies to further refine and clean.

Dow Chemical, Du Pont and several other companies which are members of the plastics council are testing the plastic as part of the research project.

″Early on we expect to find some quality quite poor. We expect to have to modify the equipment to make a higher quality product,″ said Fosnaugh, of the plastics council’s automotive committee.