To the staff of the United States Council on Automotive Research (USCAR) Vehicle Recycling Development Center in Highland Park, MI, the vision goes beyond what is or isn't happening today with recycled plastics.

Like a biologist dissecting a frog, these folks take apart recent-model cars and old junkers and examine the properties of their plastic parts, constantly looking for new ways to get them back into the supply stream.

"When you say it's happening too slowly, it's like the psychologist who says happiness is a function of your expectations," says Lawrence I. Daniels, a General Motors Corp. polymer composites engineer and a GM representative to the VRDC, one of more than a dozen Big Three cooperative projects under USCAR's umbrella.

"If you expected total success all at once, of course you'd be disappointed. Our job is to find enough new applications of automotive shredder residue (ASR, or the fluff left over after the instrument panels, armrests, seats and window glass are crushed) so there is a sufficient demand for recycling it," says Mr. Daniels.

Inside the 63,000-sq.-ft. (5,900-sq.-m) building on the edge of Chrysler Corp.'s old headquarters campus, engineers from each of the Big Three dismantle about two cars a day. Whether it's finding a more efficient way of removing oil, gasoline, transmission and brake fluids or accelerating the identification of multiple resins in a given plastic part, they literally leave no square inch of a vehicle unturned in their quest for new and more direct recycling possibilities.

Recently, with the help of Lear Corp.'s Masland Div., as well as Collins & Aikman, the VRDC found a way to take seat foam and re-use it as an under-layer for automotive carpeting.

Then there is the ongoing research into pyrolysis, the process by which ASR is burned without oxygen to generate oil, gas and refined powder that can be used as filler in concrete, shingles or asphalt.

But for every encouraging step forward there is a sobering reality check.

If a three-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme is in a bad accident and sent to the scrap yard, the recyclable material in it is probably worth about $320, estimates Mr. Daniels. When the dismantler can sell an undamaged door to a body shop for more than $600, the choice is obvious.

Similarly, the raw materials that go into a windshield (mainly sand and silica) are worth between $20 and $40 per ton, depending on the size, but that's less than the expense of transporting it to the shredder.

"You need more economic incentives than exist now," says Irvin E. Poston, the current director of the VRDC and manager of GM's polymer composites research. "But we really don't want subsidies, taxes or other things that would force it to happen."

Claudia M. Duranceau, a Ford Motor Co. senior research engineer currently assigned to the VRDC, suggests that developing and validating parts containing recycled plastics in a research environment could make it easier for Big Three purchasing executives and engineers to specify such materials.

In theory, that strikes close to the core of VRDC's most vexing dilemma. Its charter restricts it to pre-competitive research. But if all manufacturers have access to the same information, is there a genuine conflict?

As long as the Big Three are committed to funding them, the VRDC staff will persevere with undaunted optimism.

Says Mr. Daniels, "One of these days this stuff will be so valuable we will be mining landfills just to dig up what has already been buried."