Although environmentalists are losing ground on several fronts, their long-time adversary is an ally when it comes to recycling. The automotive industry, contrary to its pollutant-belching, rust-bound image, is attacking waste with war-like ferocity. And the bullseye is plastic.

The U.S. has the world's best infrastructure for recycling cars and trucks. Some 12,000 dismantlers aided by more than 200 shredders pulverize yesterday's new models into 11 million tons of reusable scrap iron and steel each year. Add to that 1 million tons of non-ferrous metal collected annually, and you've recycled 75%, by weight, of the 9.4 million vehicles junked every year. What's left is automotive shredder residue (ASR, or fluff), and 34% of that is some kind of plastic.

Polymers are the recycling acorn the industry is trying to crack.

At stake are tons of non-biodegradable plastic, sitting in the nation's shrinking landfills, with a lifespan rivaling that of plutonium. But say what they will about good corporate citizenship, money - profits or losses - fuels the automotive industry's recycling zeal. Besides, environmental awareness is trendy, making it a consideration in trying to please customers - today's shrill rallying cry.

A 1993 report by Arthur D. Little Inc. says that "by the year 2010, 26.7% or 57 million potential car buyers will come from the environmentally educated generation." The implication is that tomorrow's car buyers will base their purchase decisions on just how recyclable that new GMC pickup truck, Chrysler Concorde or Ford Explorer really is.

The road to 100% recyclability, if that's possible, has now reached polymers, and the footing has gotten tough.

The problem is three-fold: How to identify the 200 kinds of polymers that can be found in the average vehicle; how to separate them; and how to ascertain what products they can be transformed into (and still make a profit in the process).

Those are the central issues being addressed by the Vehicle Recycling Partnership (VRC), the Big Three's recycling consortium under the aegis of the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR).

VRC Chairman Sandy Labana says equipment has been developed that can remove 95% of all fluids from a vehicle in 20 minutes. "That reduces the cost of recovery and it keeps them in pure form so that they can be rejuvenated," Mr. Labana says." Oil, transmission and brake fluids, along with coolant, account for 17% of ASR.

USCAR has an agreement with Argonne National Laboratories designed to identify useful products from shredded residue and to develop new shredding techniques, and it is conducting research on converting the materials that cannot be recycled into generating energy.

The consortium is processing seat foam into carpet pads for residential and automotive use. The pilot program has transformed 50,000 lbs. (22,690 kg), but the main problem - a laundry list of varying types of plastics - still exists. Says Mr. Labana: "There's no good way of separating them."

On average, 15 different kinds of plastic are used to construct an instrument panel. Some parts may be bonded together, others screwed together, while yet others are snap-fitted. Obviously, that makes them hard to dismantle. And because speed translates into profit, the quickest way of getting them into retrievable form is to shred them first and then identify the different kinds of plastic.

The American Plastics Council (APC) is developing two sorting technologies. Bruker Instruments Inc. modified its P/D28 infrared scanner for the APC. The three-foot-tall, semi-portable equipment can distinguish between 23 different kinds of plastic, identifying each within five seconds. Introduced this year at the annual meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers, the equipment is now being evaluated by USCAR in the field.

Partnered with MBA Polymers Inc. of Berkeley, CA, the APC has built a 1,000-sq.-ft. (929-sq.-m) facility there housing its Advanced Plastics Recycling Pilot Line. Focused on the identification and development of advanced mechanical recycling technologies, two pivotal features of the equipment are its ability to produce up to four different streams of plastic - using only air - and to separate plastics by density, a process much faster than the commonly used sink-float methods.

Newer vehicles have bar codes identifying the types of plastic in parts weighing more than 100 grams. The labeling system has been adopted by manufacturers worldwide.

Domestic design engineers now are attempting to reduce the number of plastics in new vehicles. Ford Motor Co., for instance, dropped from 150 grades of nylon used in its new products to just 25. For tomorrow's cars, designers are charged with making their creations dismantler-friendly to cut recycling costs.

But the nation's automotive fleet of 188 million vehicles averages 8.45 years of age. That means plastic labeling codes, quick disassembly engineering and a reduction in the types of polymers won't come into play in the recycling industry for up to 20 years, with annual scappage rates running at around 9 million units.

"In old cars, you look at (the plastic) and you don't even know what it is," says Mr. Labana. "That's why we're developing instruments that will tell us (what kind of polymer it is) quickly and reliably."

Hoechst Celanese has discovered low levels of celcon acetal copolymer found with polypropylene in ASR that, when rejuvenated, results in polypropylene with stronger properties than virgin material. The company will present a paper on its findings at the Inter Polymer Society meeting in Baltimore next month.

"Sort of naively, we figured we had to separate everything from everything," says Michele Bittrito, Hoechst's recycling manager. "Now, we're saying some things will actually recycle together (and) one material can increase the properties of another material."

Indeed, Masland Industries has developed a process that melts incompatible polymers found in carpet scrap to form EcoPlus plastic. Masland claims this can take the place of vir,in material and can be formed into any number of high-quality, thermoplastic products including automotive acoustic materials. Even better than that is that EcoPlus itself can be retrieved and recycled three or more times.

That's the next recycling plateau the ;Automotive industry is trying to reach - the environmental high ground where materials used in the production of cars and trucks contain substantial amounts of post-consumer polymers. And in the perfect recycling world, those components themselves can be transformed into other automotive parts or different products.

General Electric Co. Plastics group is spearheading initiatives under which automotive bumpers are recycled into taillamp housings, water bottles are turned into head-lamp bodies, Ford Mondeo bumpers are recycled into radiator grilles and wheel covers are made from Satum's bumpers.

Ford has set a target for its suppliers. "We'd like to have 25% post-consumer content in our polymeric materials," says Susan Day, vehicle recycling coordinator. "In the past couple of years, we've more than doubled our usage of materials that meet this target."

Along with Michelin, Ford is tackling a recycling problem that's tougher than plastic: old tires. Because the heat used to mold rubber changes its chemical makeup, old tires are difficult to reformulate and reuse. But Michelin found a way to incorporate recycled tire rubber into various parts of new tires. Prototypes have been built and tested. Michelin will refine the formulation, plan manufacturing processes and begin long-term testing.

Numerous other tire-recycling schemes also are showing promise, including a process developed by the National Rubber Co. of Toronto that, among other things, is leading to a whole new range of automotive materials from rubber recovered from old tires (see WAW - June '94, p.46).

Similarly, the SMC Automotive Alliance - a trade group comprised of raw-materials suppliers and molders - recently has reported major strides in recycling sheetmolding composite parts into new SMC parts. Several such components appear on the '96 models.

In Japan, where plastic bumpers are used on 70% of new cars, recycling has taken on new meaning. Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Nissan Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. have begun polymer recycling programs. And in the U.K., nine manufacturers have joined in an initiative to raise the environmental standards covering old-car disposal and recycling.

In a statement, the U.K. automakers observe that "while the existing systems for car disposal are recognized as being very difficult in terms of metal recycling, we in the manufacturing industry are keen to help solve the more complex problem of non-metallic (plastic) material reprocessing."

Automakers can't proceed with enough speed. The amount of plastic per vehicle is expected to double to 500 lbs. (229 kg) during the next five years. What's needed is a new recycling infrastructure. The current one, gerrymandered from mining technology, is aimed at metal. And the new system must be meldable with the old to save time and money.

"This is not a fad," says one industry insider. "It may vacillate a bit because people don't know how to do things yet." In other words, recycling is now implicit in the automotive industry's long-term strategic plan. That's good corporate citizenship and it's good for business.