Reconditioning or recycling plastic auto bumper covers makes sense by Mike Breslin
Bumper covers are the most frequently replaced body part
since most all makes and models use them. They cover a
reinforcement bumper bar made of steel, aluminum, fiberglass
composite, or plastic. Some bumper bars are designed to
absorb energy on low speed impacts.
The theory behind the
plastic cover is that it deflects and deforms when hit
lightly and pops back into its original shape. If you really
bang one hard, or even hit it lightly on a sharp object
it will abrade or tear. The plastic bumper evolved for
several other reasons, primarily design aesthetics and
aerodynamics, but also for cost and durability issues when
compared to chrome.
Warren Struz, owner of Midland Park Auto Body, a shop serving
northern Bergen County, New Jersey, told us what happens
to his damaged bumper covers. His shop handles over 1,000
vehicles annually, many requiring bumper cover repair or
replacements. “There are guys who come with a trailer and
take away damaged covers. One comes down from Canada, picks
them up, hauls them back to Canada, refurbishes and sells
them. There’s no set price per cover. He may take ten covers
and give me $20 to $40 bucks for the lot. But these types
come and go. They are unreliable. Some want me to save
covers for them, but I can’t because they accumulate and
I don’t have the space. On occasion, when I have a good,
damaged cover, I will give it to the parts supplier when
the new one is delivered. If nobody picks them up, they
go to the landfill.”
Struz, like many shops, also repairs and recycles covers
in his own shop, and in many cases feels he can do a
far better job than a reconditioner. He has plastic welders
and a paint shop and believes he can make it look like
new. “A few weeks ago we ordered a Mercedes Benz cover.
The OEM cover was $1,500 dollars and you still have to
paint and install it, which would be an additional $1,000.
I told the woman we could fix it, if she preferred. It
worked out beautifully and cost her $700 dollars for
the repair, paint and install.”
Insurance companies dictate whether OEM, aftermarket,
or reconditioned covers are used. There is a saying in
the auto body business that insurance companies follow
the golden rule: they have the gold and they rule. “Every
insurance company is negotiable if you get a part that
does not fit and will pay for an OEM part. Certain companies
could care less if we use aftermarket covers, some only
allow reconditioned or OEM. About 10 percent of the reconditioned
covers we receive are sent back because the quality of
the repair is unacceptable,” said Struz. “I actually
got a reconditioned cover the other day that was a reconditioned
aftermarket cover. It had been installed on a car, damaged,
taken off, reconditioned and sold as a reconditioned.
We took photos for the insurance company because it’s
The type of plastic is easy to identify and recycle because
it is stamped on the back, PP for polypropylene, PPO
for polyphenylene oxide and TPE for thermoplastic elastomer
Costs for bumper cover repair-replacement vary wildly
depending on make and model, but to get some perspective
we spoke with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
For the latest round of bumper tests they conducted we
obtained some costs for repair and full refinishing,
including paint and labor. It varied from a low of $519
for Mazda 6 front bumper cover to a high of $740 for
a Ford Fusion rear cover. The average purchase price
for the same OEM covers is $358 and $437, respectively
and without labor.
“As a general rule a refurbished bumper cover costs a
little more than an aftermarket product, perhaps five
percent higher, but less than an OEM part. Reconditioning
is very labor intense, but you wind up with an original
equipment bumper. There are people who prefer a refurbished
OEM than an aftermarket,” said Jim Devlin, vice president
of manufacturing special products at LKQ Corporation.
LKQ is the largest nationwide provider of recycled light
vehicle OEM products and related services, and the largest
nationwide provider of aftermarket collision replacement
products. In late 2007, LKQ acquired Keystone Automotive
Industries, Inc. which already had a large national market
share in bumper covers and made LKQ the major North American
provider of refurbished, aftermarket and OEM bumper covers.
“I believe we sell about six times as many aftermarket
bumper covers as refurbished. In rough numbers, we are
refurbishing about 1,200 a day, “ said Devlin. “It’s
one of the really exciting parts of the business for
us. We are targeting a 21 percent increase in volume
for 2010 in refurbished. The trend on the refurbish side
is continually more demand for the product. The price
of OEM covers is doing nothing but going up as they get
larger and more complex. And, we have gotten better on
the repair technique and acceptance of the remanufactured
product has increased.”
The increase in sales of refurbished covers is undoubtedly
due to the economy. Rather than buying new vehicles,
people are repairing the ones they have and holding on
to them longer. “I don’t think we’ve seen much if any
market effect because of the recession. A refurbished
or aftermarket part is a great alternative to buying
a new OEM part.” Devlin said.
In any major metropolitan area there are several small
shops that refurbish bumper covers. It’s a labor intensive
operation, usually one worker doing one bumper cover
at a time and does not necessarily require large investments
in capital equipment.
High production operations like those employed at LKQ’s
Lineres, Mexico bumper refurbishing plant use advanced
equipment and a station-to-station workflow procedure
where workers specialize in a specific task. Employing
about 275, the Lineres plant produces in excess of 400
refurbished units per day.
Currently, LKQ has a total of 37 locations dedicated
to bumper cover repair in the United States, Canada and
Mexico that employ approximately 600 workers.
To ensure uniform quality of the finished product, LKQ
instituted standard procedures and standardized the repair
materials used at all refurbishing facilities.
The process begins with thermal reforming in high temperature
soak tanks to soften the plastic and chemically clean
the cover. This returns it to the original molded shape.
After paint stripping, double-sided airless plastic welding
is the primary method for repairing tears and breaks.
A technician tapes and glues the torn area to secure
it and uses a die grinder to cut a groove in the torn
areas so a plastic welding rod can achieve penetration.
This process is repeated on the reverse side of the torn
After structural repairs, the bumper cover is sanded
and filler is applied to level the surface.
The cover is sanded using successively finer grits until
a smooth surface is achieved. A primer coat is applied
and the unit goes to quality control for an inspection
to detect surface imperfections.
After final sanding, the cover receives an application
of a durable black coating which serves as a finish coat
for some black bumpers, or as a primer coat for matched
colors applied at the auto body shop. “We strip it down
and refinish it and when we give it to you it looks about
as good as it was when it was brand new,” Devlin claimed.
Obtaining damaged bumper covers, or “cores” as they are
called, is a challenge for all refurbishing shops, especially
for cores in high demand. Too many lightly damaged cores
and those thought beyond repair wind up in landfills,
by one estimate, ten million pounds per year of non-biodegradable
plastic that could have been repaired or recycled into
new products or converted to energy. “If we had more
cores to match up with demand, we could produce a tremendous
amount of refurbished. The key to this business is cores
and one of our main concentrations is getting a wide
variety of good cores,” said Devlin.
Cores coming into LKQ result from transactions with body
shops when their drivers deliver new, reconditioned or
aftermarket parts and pick up cores, often for free.
“The informal deal is that when we drop off a bumper
cover we like to get a damaged one in exchange. We offer
incentives for our drivers to pick up cores and we review
that on a continual basis to make sure the motivation
is there,” said Devlin. LKQ also gets cores from used
parts consolidators who buy cores from scrap yards and
body shops and sell to reconditioners, often LKQ provides
wish lists of the types of covers it wants.
Many cores collected in the United States are trucked
to LKQ’s Mexico plant for remanufacturing and sent back
to the United States. No sales take place in Mexico.
“They have proven to be an excellent facility producing
an excellent quality product. The biggest advantage is
it allows us to repair covers that otherwise could not
be repaired in the United States for economic reasons
and we can repair more heavily damaged ones that require
“I think we are looking at tremendous growth in refurbished
bumper covers. We have a great process manual that is
like a cookbook. We can put in an operation anywhere
we choose and have the same looking product coming out
anywhere. That’s a very powerful thing to be able to
hand over and start an operation,” Devlin concluded.