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September 2007

Auto shredder residue recycling still needs research
by Irwin Rapoport Write the Author

According to the United States Geological Survey, 17 million vehicles were recycled in 2006 and with just over 200 automobile shredding facilities across the United States, the industry finds itself busy and healthy economically.

The shredders, represented by ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries), are for the most part comprised of small to medium-sized businesses and represent the last link in the automobile recycling chain prior to the steel being sent to the mill for processing.

In addition to vehicles, the industry is also shredding white goods and heavier materials. For inbound vehicles and white goods, certain material control procedures and those dealing with refrigerants– the recovery of Freon and other compounds – must be followed.

“There are regulations and legislation regarding some of the input materials and how they have to be handled,” says Scott Horne, ISRI’s vice president of Government Affairs and General Counsel, “[but] the actual shredding process is not regulated.”

In terms of legislative changes, ISRI has been instrumental in advocating for the passage of the RISE (Recycling Incentives Save Energy) Act by Congress, a bill that was previously brought forward by former Senator Jim Jeffords (I-V), but did not get past committee.

If eventually passed, the bill would provide tax incentives and other benefits to allow recycling firms to purchase more efficient equipment and improve the efficiency of their operations.

“It is designed to increase recycling,” says Horne. “It has been introduced in the last couple of Congresses and it has been introduced in the current Congress as Senate Bill 1587.”

David Wagger, ISRI’s director of Environment Management, notes that more “efficient equipment uses less energy per unit of output or input, which is beneficial – hence the name of the bill. Using less energy to produce more output is always good and this just increases the other existing benefits of recycling.”

The automobile shedders, through their operations, create automobile shredder residue (ASR). Save for the State of California, this material can be landfilled without being treated. California requires that this material be processed to mitigate contamination prior to landfilling.

“I don’t think there is new legislation coming,” says Horne. “We continue to cooperate with the automobile industry and others to find better methods to recycle the non-metallic fractions of the automobile. It is often used as alternative daily cover. Clearly we would like to see those materials recycled rather than just putting them in a landfill, even if it is being beneficially used as a cover.”

Thus far, ASR has proven expensive to recycle and research by USCAR, Toyota, Sims and Schnitzer, as well as by other firms and government and university laboratories, is being conducted to find formulas and processes that will make recycling profitable. ISRI is working with the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRP), which is a research collaboration of USCAR, to find a solution.

“The research in new technologies ranges in scope from taking plastic foam, depolymerizing it, and re-polymerizing it into new foam to the possibility of converting plastics and rubber into fuel-like liquids. There are a lot of different technologies being explored.”

In terms of current commercial applications, New York State-based Gershow Recycling, an automobile shredder, is installing existing commercial technology to convert ASR (plastics and rubber) into combustible gases and liquids that are similar to diesel fuel, as well as recovering any additional metals that might be in the shredder fluff.

“The intention is to use those gases and liquids on-site for their own operations so that they have, in some sense, zero-discharge from a certain perspective,” says Wagger. “This is a new technology. This is a first and it is certainly promising. We are trying to reduce the amount of ASR going into landfills.”

California implemented its regulations regarding ASR about 15 years ago. ISRI does not advocate other states following California’s lead.

California has a more burdensome regulatory regime than any other state does,” says Horne. “Clearly it is not deemed a necessity by the other states.”

Currently, shredding operations pay for landfilling ASR, which is considered an operating cost.

“If the automakers would design for recycling, if they would think about the end-of-life when they are planning the car out,” says Horne, “it would be much more functional for the recycling process. Those kinds of efforts will help to reduce the amount of materials going into landfills.

“We meet with the automakers on a relatively frequent basis and we are active in the Vehicle Recycling Partnership – a collaborative effort under US Car,” he adds. “We have made significant gains. Design for Recycling® is a combination of two principle concepts of recycling – reducing the amount of hazardous and toxic constituents in the product, and thinking about how you design it so that it can be more easily recyclable in the end.

“For the first part, we made some dramatic improvement,” he adds. “The second part is what we are working on now. That is going to take some time. The time frame for product design used to be five or six years for a product development cycle. They’ve got it down now to a couple of years, but even at that, you are never closer than a couple of years.”

While ASR does contain valuable materials and while sorting technology has improved so that materials can be isolated more easily, Horne notes that “recycling is a profit-oriented activity. It’s one thing to have the materials, it’s another to have a market for it to go to. For many of the plastics from shredder fluff, those have yet to be fully developed into a capacity to absorb all of the plastics that can be recovered. That will be a slow process.”

Government could play a role in helping to develop markets for these plastics.

“Theoretically, if the government was the first buyer in quantity, that would essentially prime the pumps so to speak,” says Horne. “That has been successful in other areas related to recycling of other materials.”

The possibility of industry and government and purchasers creating sufficient goodwill to establish a market could also prove successful, but says Horne: “It may just come from the grassroots. It’s hard to say. There may be some cooperation on both ends to try something out as proof of concept and if it works, then it would build up from there, but I am not aware of too many things along those lines.”