Value in auto shredder residue

Click to Enlarge - Bassam Jody, group leader of the energy systems division at the Argonne National Laboratory, displays plastics recovered from shredder residue by the Argonne Separation process and successfully tested for making auto parts.
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There’s significant value to be found from auto shredder residue (ASR), if a new plastics recycling operation in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin proves to be the model for profitable recovery. And, it appears this venture has the partners and the technology to make it happen. EnviroPlastics Group, a subsidiary of Plastics Conversion Technologies headquartered in Spokane, Washington and Plas2Fuel Corporation, based in Kelso, Washington are teaming up to merge dedicated ASR sorting and cleaning with a chemical process that recycles plastics not suitable for resin markets into synthetic crude oil.

Raw ASR or shredder “fluff” presents growing problems for landfills because it contains contaminants at a time when environmental regulations are getting tighter. The prime concerns are metals like lead, copper, zinc and cadmium, petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds.

California, for example, has pending legislation (SB 524) to establish an auto shredder residue working group by February, 2010 to review and evaluate the practice of using ASR as alternative daily landfill cover to determine if it poses a threat to human health and the environment. Meanwhile, Rick Brasch, legislative director of the California Department of Toxic Substances told us, “Since the 1980s ASR has been permitted for alternative daily cover, but now we are reevaluating the constituents of ASR to determine if the current operating conditions adequately protect public health and environment.” Brasch went on to say that his department wants to work with the industry to see how to best control the risks and whether the current operating conditions do that or not.”

Yet, ASR consists of potentially valuable commodities – primarily plastics and non-ferrous metals. If these materials can be liberated into clean commodity streams for the resin and non-ferrous markets, and if the leftover plastics can be converted into fuels, it could be a successful model to profitably recycle ASR and help solve landfill problems.

The partners in the Fond du Lac project envision a network of scalable ASR recycling plants close to auto shredding operations to access feedstock and minimize transportation costs. If successful, these plants could save shredders on trucking costs and tipping fees and create a boom in ASR recycling.

No one seems to have an accurate measure of ASR volume generated by roughly 250 United States auto shredding operations. “As far as we know there are 250 to 270 auto shredders in the United States and a total of about 650 to 700 worldwide,” said Rusty Manning, director of new equipment sales for Riverside Engineering, an auto shredder manufacturer. Industry experts agree that the number of vehicles being shredded today is dramatically down due to the economy and the drop in metal prices.  

A study released in April by the Paul Scherer Institute in Switzerland calculated the composition of ASR at 60 percent plastics, 15 percent minerals (glasses and sand), 10 percent textiles, leather and wood; 10 percent paint dust and rust, and 5 percent residual metals. If these figures are correct, there is approximately three million tons of plastic feedstock annually waiting to be monetized. Of course, ASR composition varies from shredder to shredder depending on the types of vehicles ingested, but with the right technology ASR holds the promise of yielding constant flows of non-ferrous metals and plastics. Profitably liberating these large potential streams is the Holy Grail for many entrepreneurs.

EnviroPlastics Group plans to build large-scale, plastic recycling operations near automotive shredder locations nationwide, the first being a 84,000 sq. ft. facility in Fond du Lac’s Southwest Industrial Park, on a 12.2 acre site. Now in the design phase, the company expects to break ground in October. The site is close to one of its strategic partners, Sadoff & Rudoy Industries, which has an auto shredder in Fond du Lac. Sadoff & Rudoy is a major Midwest processor of scrap metal with six operations in Wisconsin and one in Nebraska.

In addition, EnviroPlastics hopes to draw ASR feedstock from others in the region since their plants are designed to handle 100,000 tons of ASR per year. The plant will take raw ASR as it comes out of the shredder. It goes through ferrous and non-ferrous separation and plastics are resized into one-half inch pieces. “On the conservative side we will recover about 25 percent out of the ASR. From that, approximately 40 percent will go to oil production and the balance to the resin market,” said Gary De Laurentiis, founder and COO of EnviroPlastics.

The Fond du Lac plant will house both EnviroPlastics proprietary sorting and cleaning technology as well as the Plas2Fuels’ chemical process that converts mixed waste plastics into synthetic crude oil and other petrochemical products.

Plas2Fuel has proven the efficacy of its technology at its demonstration plant in Oregon that was recently approved for full scale production by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. While operating at 25 percent capacity during the demo phase, the plant produced 10,000 gallons of synthetic crude oil per month from waste agricultural plastics such as nursery pots, barrels and silage bags. This crude oil is sold to a nearby refinery where it is made into ultra low sulfur diesel, gasoline, jet fuel and other petrochemicals. “We looked at three different chemical processes, but Plas2Fuel was the only one that had a plant up and running and is actually selling oil,” said De Laurentiis.

“Most oil coming out of the ground contains sediment and water, so perhaps only 87 percent of the barrel is useable for high value products, the rest is sludge,” said Brent Bostwick, Plas2Fuels’ vice president of business development. “Our product has virtually zero sludge or sulfur, so the entire barrel is useable for high value products.”

Now that Plas2Fuel is reaching full capacity in Oregon, Bostwick stated that when all costs of manufacturing are accounted, the company produces synthetic crude from mixed plastics for $42 a barrel. With crude oil prices approaching $70 a barrel and predicted to go higher, that is an extremely healthy profit outlook.

Plas2Fuel’s chemistry would not be practical for ASR without EnviroPlastics’ proprietary micro-segregation system and their patent pending cleaning process that was developed over the past year at a pilot plant in Pittsburgh. “The automated separation component is not rocket science, but the cleaning component is critical,” De Laurentiis emphasized. This technology removes contaminants from plastics using a single step process that employs a combination of two liquefied gases under pressure. “As far as we know, we are the first process that is actually able to capture all of the contaminants for proper disposal,” De Laurentiis added.

Shredder residue is separated into two streams, plastics and waste. The mechanical separation process was developed with EnviroPlastics’ strategic partner and shareholder, Central Manufacturing. “The separation technology exists. We just had to be creative and mix and match it to our needs,” said De Laurentiis.

Once cleaned, the plastic is separated into three streams (PP/PE, ABS/HIPS and mixed plastics) using ‘sink float’ technology. The separated streams are sent through a metal detector and packaged for sale, or sent bulk to make oil.

“Autos contain anywhere from 350 to 500 pounds of plastic per car, so we had worked with a large auto shredder in the Pacific Northwest and found that in its present form it is too dirty and commingled to extract an economically viable hydrocarbon stream. While we were searching for a way to get at that plastic we became acquainted with EnviroPlastics and their technology. Their technology is incredible – very impressive,” said Bostwick. “Our process is indiscriminate. We take plastic types one through seven (PETE, HDPE, V, LDPE, PP, PS and other). We don’t care if it is dirty,” said Bostwick of Plas2Fuel.

Plas2Fuel’s process is relatively simple. Forced air, heated by a natural gas burner, is used to indirectly heat the feedstock. The material is isolated from oxygen in a vacuum environment. Through thermolysis and chromatography various compounds found in mixed waste plastics are separated. Gases created during thermolysis are sent back into the process to minimize energy consumption and are also used to heat storage tanks and run an oil-water separation process. The vessels are well insulated to retain heat. The process essentially “cracks” the plastic into synthetic crude oil.

“For every one BTU of energy used in the process we yield almost eight BTUs of energy,” said Bostwick. Depending on the composition of the feedstock, it takes approximately eight pounds of plastic to make one gallon of synthetic crude.

Once the system is up to temperature it runs 24/7 in what Plas2Fuel calls a continuous batch process. It is actually several vessels running separate batches on a staggered schedule so there is continuous production. With a four vessel configuration at their Oregon plant, Plas2Fuel can process 10 tons of waste plastic per day. An interesting aspect of this process is that the individual vessel is relative small and Plas2Fuel says that the equipment is easy to operate with minimum training. Because of the small size, the number of vessels can be scaled to the volume of the feedstocks. This may allow small plants to be located at or near shredders, thus avoiding transportation costs.

“There are hundreds of millions of pounds of ASR going to landfills every year and it has to be stopped. Finally, our technology is able to handle virtually any plastic feedstock,” said Bostwick.

Liberating value from ASR is a challenge, one that is being addressed by a number of entrepreneurial companies using various chemical processes, low speed secondary shredders for size reduction, eddy current separation to recover non-ferrous and mechanical processed with finer granularity to separate marketable commodities. Landfill prohibitions appear to be on the horizon and the shredding industry is nervous.

“All the shredders are waiting for us to build our first plant to prove the concept. The ideal situation is for us to site this equipment right at the shredder and continue to further process the material. We can help mitigate the pressure on shredders from the legislative side and reduce the volume going to landfill,” said De Laurentiis.