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Plastic Sits Between Opportunities and Challenges

The struggling economy of the last several months may have slowed the momentum of recycling automotive plastics in North America, but panelists at the Plastics Roundtable of the 2009 ISRI Commodities Roundtable Forum said there are still long-term factors working in favor of increased activity in that sector.

Panelist Sassan Tarahomi of International Automotive Components, Dearborn, Mich., provided an overview of the current use of recycled-content resins in the automotive sector.

Tarahomi said the list of recycled-content resins now accepted by auto manufacturers has grown throughout the decade, and that numerous types of components in the exterior, interior and underneath the hood of vehicles are manufactured using recycled-content resins.

The components are made from a range of resin types, including polypropylene, nylon, polyethylene and thermoplastic olefin resins. Resins are matched with the component or application depending on properties such as temperature ductility, impact resistance and scratch resistance.

While marketers may be attracted to the notion that “green” is “in,” engineers are not typically as swayed by that, said Tarahomi. His advice for recyclers and compounders who have developed a recycled-content resin or product is that automotive engineers want to know about its properties first and foremost. Only after that discussion is held is it the time to mention that it’s a recycled-content resin, he commented.

Tarahomi noted that with its end-of-life vehicle recycling mandates, European vehicles remain ahead in terms of recycled-content plastic components, although what has been learned in Europe can be applied to the North American market.

The high cost of oil, in terms of both the “light-weighting” of vehicles and the desire to recapture the petrochemicals in plastic scrap, is a factor that could abet automotive plastics recycling in the future, added Tarahomi.

Panelist David Raney of American Honda Motor Co. Inc., Torrance, Calif., offered remarks on the prospects for recycling plastics collected from the post-shredder residue stream.

He noted that barriers include identifying constituent plastics and removing unwelcome chemicals that are present in the residue stream. Raney indicated that technological progress has been made on these fronts, but performing both tasks cost-effectively on a high-volume basis remains a barrier.

Raney offered hope in the form of the mercury switch removal program that featured cooperation from several links in the supply chain. Studying the residue stream and how to best harvest it can benefit from a similar cooperative effort, he told attendees.

Raney and Tarahomi, as well as moderator Ron Sherga of Sherresults LLC, Fort Worth, Texas, agreed that the wider plastics and chemical industry has demonstrated considerable willingness to research plastics recycling, but that it also points to cost-effectiveness, logistics and supply limitation issues as challenges that cannot be ignored.