Recycling: Auto Industry's New Frontier?

At the time of year when American families are finding creative ways to consume holiday turkey leftovers, in a sense a parallel effort is taking place among industrial and government scientists bound to dispose of automotive leftovers.

"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," are ancient English words declared on burial of the dead - for humans. You could say it applies to vehicles as well. The problem is, vehicles and other lasting remnants of our modern industrial society don't easily return to dust.

If you cared at all, you may have thought the end of life for a motor vehicle - after parting out its vital organs - occurs when it goes to the shredder. But wait, that's hardly the end of it. That's because shredder residue still constitutes 25 percent of a vehicle's weight. Now the unaccountable bureaucrats running the European Union have decreed that automobiles there shall be 95 percent recyclable by 2015 - and no one knows how to get there yet. The EU is concerned because Europe has very limited landfill area available, unlike the vast expanses of North America, and both landfills and scrap heaps insult the environment.

The EU also has proposed that, in effect, new cars be sold with an up- front fee for end-of-life disposal, perhaps to encourage the creation of greater scrappage infrastructure than now exists. In general, America already has a pretty efficient infrastructure - with some geographic exceptions like Hawaii, Alaska, and remote rural mainland areas - for harvesting, scrapping, and reclaiming end-of-life vehicles (ELVs).

Scare at the scrapyard

Meanwhile, Detroit, the plastics industry - producers of the residues toughest to reclaim - and government agencies have banded together seeking solutions. One incentive, unspoken, is to head off draconic EU-like regs that naturally the more rabid Greens and anti-industry folks inside the Beltway would be delighted to push.

In mid-November, the Federal government's Argonne National Laboratories outside Chicago, the U.S. Department of Energy, the American Plastics Council, and USCAR's Vehicle Recycling Partnership (Chrysler Group, Ford, and General Motors) announced a cooperative research and development agreement to advance automotive recycling technology. In hand with the announcement came a demonstration of experimental processes under development at Argonne to squeeze the last gettable drop out of shredder residue.

News like this naturally makes old-car collectors and restorers nervous. The nation's scrap yards and abandoned vehicles have fed the collection and restoration hobby since the end of World War II.

The number of vehicles scrapped each year mirrors the number sold new - after something like a ten-year lag. Say, between 14 and 17 million annually.

Here's how the system works. When a car has reached the end of its economic life, that is, when the cost to keep it running (like new tires, overhauling the engine, or maybe just a new battery) appears to exceed its usefulness for transportation, it is abandoned or goes directly to a junkyard. The point of economic life is key, because there are parts of the world, Cuba for instance, where old American cars are kept running forever by whatever means necessary because no replacements are possible. So in America, a car's life has little to do with its inherent reliability or durability, only its economic value. Increasingly this is true in other industrialized parts of the world, too.

Wrecks of late models, or results of natural disasters like Katrina or crime, also make their way to the wrecker yard. If they can be repaired and sold, often using parts off other scrapped vehicles rather than pricey new factory parts, they are returned to service with a new lease on life, state vehicle titling laws permitting. If not repairable, they will be stripped of everything that can be resold to specialized used-part companies or retained in inventory for people trying to keep Old Betsy running at minimum cost. They're also a source, as noted, for collector-car restoration.

As an example of the used part process, years ago my first station wagon - bought used when a new baby was on the way - was a beat-up six-year old Ford Ranchwagon. When the speedometer broke, it didn't keep the car from running, it just made me vulnerable to speeding tickets. So after calling around - today you can do it by Internet - I went over to a local scrap yard, unfastened the whole speedometer cluster off a wreck and replaced the broken one on my car. It even showed about the same 50k odometer mileage - or maybe it was 150k or 250k, who would know?

Follow the money

The harvesting of junk cars has been made more economically feasible in recent years by the more valuable parts and components they have, such as airbags, electronic gadgetry, catalytic converters full of rare metals, and easily recyclable aluminum. A typical price for an older car sold to a Detroit scrapper today is $75, about three times what it was a generation ago.

As with so many things, there's a lot of money to be made in scrap cars if you master the technology. Even new ways to recycle tires, after separating steel belts from radials, have been developed. Scrap iron and steel is cheaper than new ferrous materials. Environmental protection agencies keep a wary eye out for bad liquids getting into the soil during the scrapping process, but again the scrap business evidently finds ingenious ways to make a buck reusing or reconstituting oil, gasoline, brake fluid, anti-freeze, etc. But when all that has been done and the hulk sent to the shredder - typically a huge rotating drum that separates everything remaining by weight - there is still a huge amount of stubborn residue, 25 percent as noted above. Up to now, that mess of stuff has simply headed to the landfills, already overflowing even in spacious America with the leftovers of our homesteads and factories.

The experimental processes under development at Argonne Labs - once the "skunk works" under the football stadium at the University of Chicago where the A-bomb was cooked up - are a further, you might say finite, refinement of all that has gone on previously in scrapping out a vehicle. They're just broken down into smaller components, a capture of miniatures in effect, through a sequence of various screens, magnetic passes, and washes. Oddly, samples of shredder residue collected for processing at Argonne include surprising amounts of wood (from trailer bodies) and stone (apparently scooped up in harvesting or trapped in undercarriages).

Here the biggest challenge has been sorting out the various kinds of plastics that go into a car (or home appliances, another big input to shredders and their residue) - polyurethane foams and soft and hard polymers. The objective is to get them back to their original chemical compounds by a kind of process reverse engineering. This would give these residues economic value, cheaper than new chemicals, and make the processing economically feasible. At least that's the objective.

The target - and belief - is that an additional 20 percent or more of a car's weight thus could be recycled. This further refinement of recycling would reduce the need for landfills, reduce energy costs of producing new materials, perhaps provide fuel for other industrial processes - and take some heat off Detroit and the plastics industry even before the flame has been turned up.

Not a very exciting story, but one vital to the future of two big industries and the cost and convenience of buying a new car or truck.

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