Recycling automotive plastics still sounds good on paper, but low landfill costs, weak demand for recycled compounds and the high cost of separating and identifying different types of plastics remain formidable economic barriers.

Take the case of Phoenix Fiberglass, a Cobourg, Ont., company that filed for bankruptcy protection last March. For about five years, Phoenix tried to reclaim the core calcium carbonate compound from recycled sheet molded composites (SMC). Unfortunately, the process it used was so costly that it had to charge up to 18 cents/lb. (8.2 cents/kg) for the recycled calcium carbonate. Most manufacturers could buy it new for less than half that.

Another effort to separate fiberglass from the residue of the ground-up SMC failed because Phoenix and its partner, Owens-Corning Inc., could not find enough customers for the fiberglass.

"We knew our customers would not pay a premium for recycling," says Kenneth C. Rusch, advanced programs manager for the Budd Co., one of seven SMC molders that tried to support Phoenix. "It's nice to say you want to be socially responsible, but in real-life business you can't spend money unnecessarily."

Another problem, says Mr. Rusch, is that most of the applications for recycled SMC were for low-volume prototype parts. Many of the high-volume orders that were needed to make the operation profitable would not come until launch of the new vehicle three or four years later.

Getting parts with recycled content approved by platform engineering chiefs also is difficult. With increasingly compressed product development cycles, there often is a trade-off between taking the extra time to evaluate and approve a new material and meeting deadlines. Using virgin materials whose performance is dependable is often the quicker and more efficient route.

The 76% of a vehicle that breaks down into ferrous and non-ferrous metals is reused effectively and economically. It's the other 24% emerging from the automotive shredder as "fluff" that remains the problem.

Plastics content of an average vehicle has more than tripled from 70 lbs. (31.8 kg) in 1970 to 250 lbs. (113.5 kg) today, raising the urgency of finding more ways to recycle it. After all, between 10 million and 11 million vehicles are scrapped each year.

To be sure, new applications of recycled plastics are making their way into vehicles with each new model year.

Ford Motor Co. is reprocessing used carpeting into 200,000 lbs. (90,720 kg) of nylon, which then is molded into fan modules for the 1997 Windstar minivan. In the 4.6L Triton engine powering Ford's F-series trucks, you can find engine covers made of Hoechst Celanese Automotive's Impet recycled polyester. The same material is featured in the front-end panel assembly of the new Chevrolet Malibu. Many headliners use recycled 2-liter pop bottles.

Most of these examples, however, originate with non-automotive materials. Too often when the average 13-year-old car is torn apart and the plastic parts are shredded into "fluff,' it is simply cheaper to truck it off to a landfill at a cost of between $10 and $35 per ton.

Today about 90% of scrapped vehicles are disposed of through dismantlers. After removing the recyclable parts, they sell the hulk to a shredder, who pays about $100 per ton. The more it weighs the more it pays, so they often leave recyclable components such as instrument panels and seat foam inside.

"If it costs us $10 a ton to remove, process and ship seat foam to General Motors and it only costs them $7 a ton to buy it new, why will they do it?" asks Gary M. Gallo, manager of recycling operations for Tube City Inc., an automotive dismantler in Pittsburgh.

Of course, positioning yourself as environmentally responsible is good public relations. So there are plenty of good intentions and noble "on-the-record" objectives.

Ford, which has been the most proactive of the major OEMs on this issue, has told suppliers it wants 25% of its polymer materials to contain recycled content by the turn of the century.

But those most interested in seeing that happen -- dismantlers, reprocessors and suppliers who use large amounts of SMC -- say top management hasn't passed the message on to purchasing agents and platform engineers to give preference to recycled components, even if they don't carry the lowest price.

Richard J. Marshall, president of a Southfield, MI, company that processes a range of minerals and chemicals to produce fillers that are used in automotive and non-automotive plastics, bought some of the lab equipment and a fiberglass milling line from Phoenix's bankruptcy liquidation. Mr. Marshall says he has a better chance of success because he won't be solely dependent on the sale of calcium carbonate or fiberglass.

To some extent, say those who were close to the Phoenix situation, it was simply an idea ahead of its time.

"The Phoenix plant was like a sledge hammer to kill a gnat," says Mr. Marshall. "They were trying to separate fiberglass from the filler, and they could never find a market for that fiberglass. We intend to match the price of the calcium carbonate, not penny-for-penny, but on a value-for-value basis."

There are a number of technical obstacles that add complexity to the conundrum of plastics recycling. For example, an instrument panel might contain a dozen or more types of polymers. But none of them can be reused unless there is a quick and inexpensive way to identify and separate them.

Bruker Analytische Co. of Karlsruhe, Germany, for example, has developed a 3-ft.-high portable computer that uses technology similar to bar-code scanners to analyze and identify the usable properties of a given part in a matter of seconds. As recently as a year ago, the same analysis often took a full day or longer.

The problem: The Bruker unit costs $50,000 -- well beyond what most of the nation's 200 automotive shredding operators can afford.

Yet another challenge: removing contaminated paint. Most cars and trucks are now equipped with bumpers painted the same color as the body. As those vehicles are scrapped in 10 to 15 years, a cost-effective paint-removal technology will be needed.

D&S Plastics International of Grand Prairie, TX, is using a co-injection molding process that could bring painted bumpers into the recycling mainstream, but today the cost of co-injection molding equipment is 40% to 60% higher than standard injection-molding technology.

D&S officials will present a research paper at the Autoplas '96 exhibition Nov. 20-21 in Dearborn, MI.

With typically American entrepreneurial pride, nearly everyone with a stake in seeing a viable market develop will say that government mandates on plastics re-use, which have helped push the process forward in Europe, will cause more harm than good in North America.

The German Bundestag passed a closed-loop recycling law that takes effect this month and makes each manufacturer responsible for its product through its entire life cycle, including reused and disposal.

But there are economic factors, such as higher landfill costs, that help reinforce the German social policy commitment. No such synergy exists yet in the U.S.

"People have to take the second step beyond technical capability into investing in the infrastructure," says James Best, project director for Market Search Inc.'s Automotive Plastics Reports in Toledo, OH. "But in Detroit, it has to be economically feasible or it won't fly. People just aren't going to recycle out of a patriotic impulse."