Designing vehicles with recycling in mind

When designing cars and trucks, many considerations must be taken into account and in some cases, some compete with one another.

A Ford design laboratory where engineers, with the aid of lifesize parts and computers, can test chassis designs to maximize passenger comfort and ease of servicing and dismantling.

However, in the case of the end-of-life stage of vehicles, automobile manufacturers and auto recyclers are working together to come up with solutions to create vehicles better designed to promote recycling and better servicing of the vehicle during its working lifespan.

This is not to say that progress has been steady, but discussions continue via the United States Car’s Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP) and through the efforts of the manufacturers to remove hazardous materials from their source materials.

Dan Adsit, Ford Motor Company manager in vehicle and environmental engineering, said a significant effort is being made to eliminate and reduce the amount of hazardous materials such as mercury and lead in components and in greater de-pollution efforts.

“The best way to deal with such materials is to minimize their use, such as mercury,” he said. “We are getting out of mercury-containing components. Today we have mercury in very small amounts in items such as high intensity discharge (HID) lamps, navigation system screens and family entertainment systems.

“Our HID headlamps historically had 0.5 milligrams of mercury in them and we are now almost entirely in non-mercury containing HID lamps,” he added. “These are no longer an issue in terms of removal. It’s the same with navigation screens. They are now mercury-free, so the dismantler doesn’t have to worry about removing them for de-pollution. They can be removed and sold.

“We are also working on implementing what has been done in the European Union in terms of lead reduction,” said Adsit. “We are out of leaded wheel weights and we are reducing our lead use across the board in our vehicles.”

To warn recyclers about hazardous materials, Ford applies labels stating that certain components contain mercury. While only selected states require this information, Adsit said this information can be found in all vehicles nationwide.

“Our goal is to have no need for a label,” he said. “We’re pretty good at designing cars that are made from environmentally-friendly materials, which is part of the recycling picture.”

On the issue of having industry-wide standardized fasteners, Adsit notes that certain fasteners are standard because manufacturers often purchase components from the same suppliers.

“We have Supplier Environmental Requirements that we give to our suppliers and one of them is our specification for design disassembly,” he said. “We ask them to design for easy access and easy removal, particularly items that need to be de-polluted. Disassembly issues also apply to servicing. You want to make it easy to service a vehicle.”

Concerning the removal of parts and systems, Adsit said “we also look at big plastic pieces that can be removed for recycling. When you get into smaller components and subcomponents, it depends on one’s definition of easy. Removing a mirror to sell it wouldn’t be that complicated. What you want to do is go after the big pieces of material to reuse or recycle because if you’re spending a lot of time to get a small piece of material, it may not be worth the effort.”

Dealing with automobile shredder residue (ASR) is an ongoing issue that is being addressed by the VRP. Adsit said research to deal with the non-metallic waste that is not recycled today is being conducted with the Argon National Laboratories, now looking at one strategy to develop a separation process following the shredding of a vehicle.

“If you can separate the good materials like polypropylene and be able to recycle them,” he said, “that would be a pretty efficient way of doing things. You would not have as much labor cost in removing items. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re taking recycled content and putting it into our vehicles – like taking pop bottles and making components out of them.

“As part of the design process,” he added, “we also mark our non-metallic components to let people know what they consist of.”

Through the VPR, Ford and other manufacturers are working with recyclers and dismantlers to share information to make recycling more efficient across the board. As an example, this is being done now with airbag systems and other elements.

“If the economic driver is to remove components to recycle, that information can certainly be made available,” said Adsit. “We’ve got guidance that we supply on the recycling of airbags.”

He stresses that some materials that can be derived from a car do not have value in today’s marketplace, which means the business case is not as strong. That is why research is ongoing with ASR and to maximize the economic potential of those materials.

Charles Ossenkop, owner of Anchorage, Alaska’s Northwest Auto Parts and chair of the Automobile Recyclers Association’s technical advisory committee, said much more progress is needed to design vehicles that are easier to recycle.

“The big three American manufacturers are in financial straits at this time,” he said, “so the resources they have to allocate to these cooperative projects are limited. At this point it is understandable and we hope to be able to move forward with discussions in the future and do more things that are real and tangible.”

The ARA is currently conducting a fluid recovery study, which started a year ago, to deal with components that have created difficulties in the past. The study is determining how much fluid can be removed and what the problems are.

Due to financial pressures, he said, manufacturers have suspended their participation in the study, but it is hoped they will soon be back on board.

The ARA has consistently stressed that “reuse is the highest form of recycling” for a variety of reasons, particularly as manufacturing a new part is energy intensive and requires the production of new materials.

Removing parts and materials from domestic and foreign manufactured vehicles, said Ossenkop, varies greatly.

“In terms of just straight part removal,” he said, “we’re pretty good at removing parts. There are some design features that make it difficult to remove certain parts and we have raised these issues.”

Health concerns when it comes to dealing with fluids and hazardous materials such as mercury are major considerations for auto recyclers, as are carbon fibers.

“There are a lot of potential health issues with respect to servicing and dismantling parts made with carbon fibers,” said Ossenkop. “How do we deal with those kinds of materials? What is the recycling stream for composite materials at the end-of-life and how are they going to be recycled rather than go into a landfill?”

While recyclers have technology to help remove some parts, they would greatly appreciate standardization when it comes to fasteners.

“Fasteners can be very problematic,” said Ossenkop, who would also like warning labels placed on parts with hazardous materials. “We would certainly like to see more of that information disseminated to our industry. Firstly, we would like to see hazardous materials not be in a car. We would to see an end-of-life solution to deal with them. It’s important to protect our personnel and everyone downstream.”

European Union regulations require automobile manufacturers to provide recyclers with some dismantling manuals. Ossenkop said General Motors has taken steps in that direction, but notes that they are basic and not very detail-oriented, and that European manuals are also lacking in specific information.

“What we need is help in areas where we have problems,” he said. “That is what we would like to address with the Road Safety Technical Advisory Committee and the auto industry. The manufacturers recognize that there is a strong automobile recycling infrastructure and we do a good job, but unless the manufacturers keep an eye on the end-of-life resolution of a vehicle, we could end up with legislation that mandates them to do certain things like the EU directive.

“That is not wanted in our country as long as we have inter-industry cooperative discussions that have some cause and effect,” he added. “We can get there without legislative mandates.”

Despite current business problems, manufacturers did invite the ARA to participate in discussions regarding the recycling of future hybrid vehicle batteries.