Imagine a day when environmentalists hold the automobile up as a shining example of a "green" product.

It's beginning to happen. In fact, solid-waste problems could be reduced greatly if other materials were as easy to recycle and reuse as the aluminum and steel from vehicles.

Every year, approximately 10 million vehicles are scrapped, and about 75% of the material by weight from those vehicles is recycled.

That's a far superior recycling record than that of common household goods we return to the supermarket or put out at the curb every week. About 61% of cans, 30% of paper and 20% of glass are recycled. Despite the automobile's admirable record for recycling, it's not enough for the Big Three.

The Vehicle Recycling Development Center (VRDC) is a joint research project of Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. to develop automotive recycling technology. The VRDC is managed by the Vehicle Recycling Partnership, one of 13 consortia of the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR). Others in the VRDC include the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), the American Plastics Council (APC) and the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

At the VRDC, new or recent vintage cars are dismantled and examined to determine ways to do an even better job of reusing and recycling their parts. Eventually, the center will dismantle up to 500 vehicles a year.

Since becoming fully operational in the past year, the center's efforts have focused initially on the areas that account for the bulk of the 25% of the vehicle yet to be recycled -- fluids and plastics.

Removing fluids must be quick and easy for automotive dismantlers to be profitable. The goal is for a dismantler to drain all fluids in 20 minutes or less while minimizing any risk to the environment. A 20-minute goal places even more emphasis on finding the right equipment to remove fluid.

The VRDC's work might eventually result in industry standards for fluid caps so the same fluid removal equipment can be used on all vehicles. Moreover, a drain plug might be added to automatic transmissions so transmission fluid can be drained rather than vacuumed, as it is currently.

As much as possible, the center looks for ways to reclaim fluids and re-process them into their original form to reduce the impact on the environment.

Progress has been made in reclaiming anti-freeze, for example. The center currently is testing a recycling machine that analyzes anti-freeze for its basic components and regenerates it into fresh-like condition. It then can be re-used in vehicles.

Likewise, the center has demonstrated windshield washer fluid can easily be saved and re-used in vehicles, as some dismantlers already do today. Equipment to remove and refine brake fluid also is being tested.

Plastics present the most formidable challenge and cannot be lumped into one category for recycling because each plastic has a specific chemical make-up. Materials must be identified before plastics can be recycled. The center has discovered as many as 15 types of plastics are found in instrument panels alone. A variety of bonding methods -- from molding to gluing -- are used to assemble the instrument panels, complicating the sorting process further.

The center will be testing equipment that can help identify the various kinds of plastics. In addition, the center is cataloging all plastic components as each vehicle is dismantled.

The information gained from this process is being used to develop a computerized database for dismantlers. In the future, a dismantler will be able to input the part taken off the vehicle and a computer-generated worksheet will tell what material was used to make the part.

In addition to identifying materials, the VRDC is pursuing opportunities to expand the recycling infrastructure to more automotive materials. Working with chemical companies and automotive seating suppliers, the center is exploring the possibility of recycling polyurethane foam used in vehicle seats into carpet pads for homes.

In the future, the center will move on to rubber, glass and other materials.