Why would you want to put used stuff in my car?" Al Cullum asked his son Terry one night at the dinner table. The younger Mr. Cullum, then working on the interior team of the '92 Cadillac Seville, had just told his father about the perfect resin they had found for the car's headliner: recycled PET from pop bottles.

Mr. Cullum's children thought it was fantastic. "It's almost a generational thing," explains Mr. Cullum, now manager of General Motors Corp.'s public policy center.

With plastics recycling, however, it's not just the public's attitude that is warming. Technology and profitability are on the rise, making recycled plastic components somewhat more attractive, logistically and economically, to OEMs. Environmentally concerned, but also fiscally and legally wary, automakers are increasing the purchase of components from recycled materials.

Although recyclers have neared the limit of what they can do with traditional materials such as aluminum and steel, there is much more room to increase the use of recycled plastic. That is because plastic has been much more expensive to salvage and reprocess. It generally is shredded into "fluff" and landfilled instead. Mr. Cullum says, however, that in many cases the cost of recycling plastics offers savings over producing virgin resin.

Earlier this year DaimlerChrysler AG announced a directive that would shoot for 30% recycled plastic components by weight in their vehicles by 2002. So far, GM has no plans to expand their content goals past a vehicle-by-vehicle basis, though they also are working to increase their percentages.

Ford Motor Co. soon will release a new, tougher directive, although the company has not offered any hard numbers yet. The company hopes, however, roughly to increase fivefold the amount of recycled plastic from suppliers within the next 10 to 15 years. Ford and its suppliers have been trying to achieve 25% recycled plastic by weight, as its 1994 Worldwide Recycling Guide indicates. They are quite a ways from reaching that goal, but one source says the directive will require, rather than encourage, levels of recycled content.

The European Commission has passed legislation that puts all of the responsibility for the disposal and recycling of all end-of-life cars and trucks on the shoulders of automakers, starting in 2006. The vehicle-scrapping infrastructure in Europe is less market-driven and more regulated than in North America, so legislation is more necessary. This law, awaiting approval by the European Parliament, includes vehicles that are on the road today, despite the complaints of German automakers and government. In Japan, recycling is an immediate concern because of fast-dwindling landfill space.

However, U.S. automakers claim that EU actions do not affect policy directly. Ford and GM introduced recycling guidelines in 1994, and Chrysler first issued them in 1993, all before the European Union legislation.

Still, it seems to be in the back of their minds. Legislation will affect all vehicles sold in Europe, so it follows that global automakers maintain across-the-board recycled-content increases in all of their vehicles. William Orr, Ford's manager for worldwide recycling planning says, "So many of our products are global, it makes sense for us." Susan Yester, DC's manager for vehicle recycling programs says, "It's very seldom that we design a part for a particular market."

BMW AG already boasts rates of about 13% to 15% for recycled plastic content in their cars - most cars currently contain much less than 10%. European legislation, like the German End-of-Life Vehicle Act, affects BMW, DC and Volkswagen AG more than it does U.S. automakers. VW and BMW do not have specific goals for recycled plastic content but instead aim at a minimum of 95% total recyclability in the cars that become their responsibility in 2015. Recyclability of most vehicles is now 75%.

Mr. Orr says that not all of Ford's suppliers are enthusiastic about continual recycled-content increases. "It's a rightful consideration. Plenty of people have gone out of business doing recycling." Since consumers are far from eager to pay extra for recycled material, automakers need to squeeze profit out of recycling ventures. In April Ford announced plans to buy disassembly facilities, anticipating $1 billion in annual revenue, but legal reasons keep company executives from speaking publicly about it now. DC says it is "looking at (similar ventures) very closely."

The Vehicle Recycling Partnership, part of the United States Council for Automotive Research, links the Big Three in an effort to increase the viability of, primarily, recycled plastics and elastomers. The Frost flotation process involves the separation of usable materials out of plastic and rubber shredder residue, or landfill "fluff."

The American Plastics Council takes a stance similar to the automakers. Dr. Mike Fisher says the consortium promotes the use of recycled plastics "when it does make environmental sense, where it is economically sustainable, and most importantly, where it doesn't sacrifice safety, performance, affordability, etc."

At the base of the supply chain, DuPont Automotive Inc. plans to complete construction of an ammonolysis demonstration facility in the second half of 2000. Ammonolysis is a chemical process that returns nylon 6 and nylon 66 to their pure molecular forms, making them chemically identical to virgin resin.

DuPont also is developing methanolysis, a chemical process for polyester, and looking at other methods of chemically recycling nylon. Clint Christian, the company's Visteon global business manager, says that although technology charges ahead, "Infrastructure is most lacking, and the industry realizes this."