Reconditioning or recycling plastic auto bumper covers makes sense Click to Enlarge - Collision repair shops store bumpers on-site until a recycler picks them up for reconditioning or recycling based upon the bumper’s condition.
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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 unacceptable.”

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 as examples.

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 area.

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 more time.”

“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.