Recyclers know how to remove bumpers from end-of-life vehicles and process them into feedstock. High costs, low value, and little demand for postconsumer material are what keep this market from growing, they say.
by Rachel H. Pollack
In an industrial park on the outskirts of Baltimore, four employees of LKQ Corp. (Chicago) stand on a loading dock and unload and sort through a 53-foot trailer load of automobile bumpers. They set aside a few of the less-damaged ones for refurbishment, placing most of them next to a workbench in the middle of the room to be decontaminated.
Two employees at that workbench use hand-held air saws and other tools to remove metal fasteners and other contaminants from each bumper. Another employee feeds the decontaminated bumpers, one by one, into a granulator. He, too, has the necessary tools to remove any overlooked contamination from a bumper before it gets processed. The 150-hp granulator can process about 165 bumpers, or 1,400 pounds, an hour. Even though LKQ’s primary goal is refurbishing the repairable bumpers, 85 percent of the bumpers it handles—1.87 million bumpers a year—get granulated and sold to plastics recyclers.
Bumpers are the low-hanging fruit of automotive plastics. Most auto bumpers (technically, bumper covers) are made from one type of resin, thermoplastic olefin, that manufacturers can use to make new bumpers and other products, and you don’t need special skills or tools to remove them from a car. But metal recycling yards and auto dismantlers say they don’t routinely pull them off and recycle them. It’s the story of all commercial recycling in a nutshell, says
Jonathan Cohen, president of Generated Materials Recovery (Phoenix) and former chair of ISRI’s Plastics Division. “When the cost for processing a material is higher than the revenue generated from the sale of that commodity, you’re in the red.”
Labor, storage, processing, and transportation costs exceed the value they can get for the bumpers from plastics processors or consumers, recyclers say. A healthy postindustrial TPO supply and low virgin resin prices are factors as well. TPO is a derivative of polypropylene combined with rubber, so its price ties into the virgin PP price, says Jim Porter, president and owner of Recycled Materials (Atlanta), which processes TPO. Historically, recycled TPO has sold for roughly 30 to 40 percent less than virgin TPO, says Scott Melton, president of ACI Plastics (Flint, Mich.), so if virgin TPO is selling for a dollar a pound, for example, processors must spend less than 60 or 70 cents a pound to source the material, prepare it for recycling, process it, and repelletize it, which is a tall order. “When PP prices are high, there’s more value, it’s easy to recycle [TPO],” says Cohen, whose company handles an estimated 80,000 pounds of baled TPO a month. “When PP prices are low or sorting costs are high, the math just doesn’t work.”
When you pull the bumpers off a car, TPO plastic is not the only thing you’ll get. “We request [that suppliers] remove the grill, headlights, license plates, and other contaminants. Inevitably you have to watch out for clips, nuts, bolts, things of that nature,” Porter says. ISRI added an auto bumper plastics specification to the Scrap Specifications Circular last year that states “everything attached to the bumper cover should be removed before baling,” specifying head lamps, tail lamps, grills, emblems, rub strips, and reflectors. “Contamination should be limited to small metal parts such as clips, bolts, and screws,” the spec states.
Many small metal clips hold each bumper in place. Plastics processors will either pay less for loads that contain them or just not accept that material, recyclers say. Workers must remove the clips by hand, but that preprocessing is essential, Cohen says, because the metal can damage a granulator and ruin the load of TPO. With its six bumper-sorting facilities in North America both removing contaminants and granulating the bumpers, LKQ must perform its own quality control, says Mario Maselli, director of plastic remanufacturing. “We mark every Gaylord [of regrind] with the grinder’s initials,” he says, to track performance.
A small proportion of auto bumpers are urethane—less than 3 percent, Maselli estimates, typically from imported European cars. Cohen cautions that urethane is “like poison—it can ruin a load of TPO, thus those bumpers must be kept out of the supply.” Fortunately, it’s easy to spot the urethane bumpers, Porter says. “They’re much heavier [and] a different color on the inside, where it’s not painted.” The unpainted side of urethane bumpers is yellow or tan, whereas TPO bumpers are dark gray to black.
The labor cost of pulling, sorting, and decontaminating bumpers and the value of TPO don’t justify removing bumpers from ELVs, says Neil Samahon, CEO of Metro Recycling (Griffith, Ind.), which has both auto dismantling and recycling operations. “With the difficulty we’re having in hiring personnel [and] staffing facilities,” it’s tough to dedicate staff to a task with little return on investment, he says. “At this point, we’ve opted to set [the idea] aside and revisit it another day, when the economics and dynamics of it change.” Other recyclers and dismantlers report coming to the same conclusion.
Samahon notes one other factor that discourages TPO recycling from ELVs. Shredder yards set per-ton prices for car hulks assuming a certain percentage of the hulk is not metallic. Removing up to 20 pounds of bumper per car lowers a shipment’s weight and thus its value. Currently, the value of those pounds while on a car hulk is greater than the value of the pounds of TPO bumpers sold separately to a plastics recycler, he says. One source says it’s a 100-percent difference—the bumpers are worth up to twice as much on the car as they are sold separately.
PADNOS (Holland, Mich.) might be unique in that it has made and will continue to make an effort to remove TPO bumpers from ELVs despite the current low return on investment. Removal is part of its depollution and part-removal process prior to shredding. It’s challenging to remove them efficiently, and it’s even more of a challenge to make a margin on the material with today’s historically low resin pricing, says Randy Knibbe, plastics division director. “It’s labor-intensive, and if you do a cost study, there’s a good chance you’re losing money by doing it in current market conditions,” he says. But “the Padnos family encourages us to do whatever we can to recycle, as long as it makes sense and is sustainable in the long term,” he explains. And that means working on removing and recycling these bumpers to keep them out of the landfill. “It’s the personal mission of [Chairman] Jeff Padnos to do that,” Knibbe says, based on “both the long-term environmental return and the financial return.
“The way we see it,” he adds, “there will be continued growth in the amount of plastic being used on and in cars. Resin pricing will eventually increase, the cost to dispose of auto shredder [residue] will also rise, regulations are destined to change, and it will make even more sense to remove plastics, including bumper fascias, prior to shredding. We are going to continue our efforts to be ahead of the curve.”
Very few of the bumpers LKQ takes in come from the auto salvage side of the company, Maselli says. “The cost of removing the metal is going to outweigh the value,” even with the greater value it gets for refurbishing some of them, he says. Instead, the company collects bumpers from auto body shops and collision centers as it delivers its aftermarket auto parts and refurbished bumpers. Those businesses already have been paid for removing and replacing the bumpers by the insurance claim, reducing the cost for recyclers who have tapped this supply source.
Metalpro (Springfield, Va.) has been recycling bumpers it collects from collision centers and body shops in parts of Virginia and Maryland for about 10 years. Before it started recycling them, it was hauling the bumpers to the landfill for a fee, says Bob Ward, Metalpro’s president and owner. It still charges the fee, but around 2007 it purchased a baler specifically for bumpers and started baling them; now it sells one trailerload a month—about 20 tons—to plastics recyclers. “It made sense to sort, bale, and haul it [to a buyer] instead of dumping it” for both economic and environmental reasons, Ward says. “If we could break even, it was worth exploring.” Even so, collections don’t always go smoothly, he notes. In the collection containers, “we get wheel well liners, windshield washer fluid tanks, hub caps—we want bumper covers, and that’s it.”
Even if the price of TPO were to rise, dismantlers and recyclers point out a few other factors that discourage bumper recycling. With their shape and bulk, you need substantial storage space to accumulate 5,000 bumpers for a load. This is more of a barrier for auto dismantlers, who often don’t have balers, which recyclers can use to store the material more efficiently. And high transportation costs mean postconsumer material rarely travels very far. “Outside 600 miles of the plant, it doesn’t make sense to go get it,” ACI’s Melton says. For Recycled Materials, the limit is just 150 miles, Porter says. In contrast, they source postindustrial TPO, which they say is worth three to four times more than postconsumer, from around the country. Because LKQ wants to refurbish its bumpers, it doesn’t bale its supply. Transportation is “a huge part of our costs,” Maselli says. “We make sure the truck is properly loaded to get 700-800 bumpers in a 53-foot trailer, or the freight will kill us.”
Also moderating interest in TPO from ELV bumpers is the healthy supply of postindustrial material. The majority of the million-plus pounds of TPO that PADNOS handles annually comes from postindustrial sources in Indiana, Michigan, and western Ontario, Knibbe says. The suppliers are largely original equipment manufacturers, Tier 1 and Tier 2 manufacturers of injection-molded auto parts and auto assemblers, who recycle off-spec parts, obsolete inventory, and spare parts. Many interior and exterior car parts are made from TPO, he notes, but bumpers are “easily the biggest volume, just by pounds, because it’s a big part.”
Postindustrial material is substantially cleaner and easier to access than ELV bumpers, say Knibbe and other plastics processors. Some of it isn’t painted and doesn’t have attachments, so it can go right into the granulator. Of the 1 million pounds of TPO ACI processes each month, less than 100,000 pounds is postconsumer material, Melton says.
Circumstances can change, however, so these processors don’t rule out taking more postconsumer supply in the future. “When there isn’t enough supply and we need to fill orders, when we need raw material, we’ll work even harder to get it,” Knibbe says. If there’s a lot of [postindustrial] supply, it logically makes more sense to use that, and that’s where we’re seeing the market at right now.” At ACI, on the other hand, “we just started having discussions again of where supply lines are” for postconsumer, Melton says. “We need more material, and postindustrial is out there,” but much of it is already being collected, he says. “We’re trying to talk to people we worked with years ago, to see if they’re still collecting.”
Processing the Plastic
Recyclers vary in the extent of processing they do to the recovered TPO. Some simply grind the material into flake; others use various processes to remove paint and other contaminants such as metal foil. The flake gets extruded and pelletized to create a feedstock that can go into new products.
Is the paint a problem? It depends on the end market, processors say. “I think there’s a perception that the paint is a contaminant more than it is,” Recycled Materials’ Porter says. His company granulates about 150,000 pounds of TPO a month, but it does not remove the paint. To a great extent, “the paint either gets filtered out or dissolves” when the TPO is melted for extrusion, he says, “or it’s not going to be a problem” for the final product being produced by his consumers, although it might be for other downstream applications. Maselli suspects the company buying LKQ’s TPO flake is not removing the paint, either.
For recycled TPO that matches the characteristics of virgin TPO, however, processors say paint removal is essential—and difficult. Exterior vehicle paint has become much more durable, Knibbe says. A car “can be outdoors in the sun for 10 years and it won’t fade; you can hit a pole at a gas station, and it hardly cracks. It’s great for car owners, not so great for recycling painted bumpers.” Paint removal is one of the biggest challenges to recycling postconsumer material, he says.
Even a small amount of residual paint will prevent new paint from adhering to parts made from recycled TPO, says Susan Kozora, director of advanced engineering at auto parts maker IAC Group (Southfield, Mich.), who spoke about TPO recycling at the 2017 ISRI convention. She cautions, however, that some methods for removing paint can affect performance characteristics such as impact resistance. Chemical processes result in more thorough paint removal, but they’re expensive, slow, likely to affect the physical properties, and can create environmental issues, Knibbe says. Physical processes are slow, too, but they better preserve the physical properties, Kozora says. In her experience, a combination of heat and chemicals works best. No process removes 100 percent of the paint, Knibbe says, but you can achieve 99.5- to 99.9-percent removal.
Many market participants point to ACI as a company that successfully produces recycled TPO that can meet virgin TPO standards. It uses a patented, water-based process for paint removal with a “small amount of a chemical,” Melton says, one of only two companies using such a process in the United States. It certifies the physical characteristics of each batch of recycled TPO pellet it sells, with most of the material going to Tier 1 automotive suppliers. Geo-Tech Polymers (Waverly, Ohio) also removes paint from TPO. Its process is “not using friction, it’s using FDA-approved chemicals” so the “TPO is cleaning itself,” says CEO Ron Whaley. “We designed our own ‘Maytag washer’ and our own ‘Tide detergent’ for each application,” he says.
Earlier this year, the Plastics Industry Association (Washington, D.C.) researched the physical properties of recycled TPO from ELVs. The researchers sent ELV bumpers—collected at an auto scrapyard—to a plastics processor, which granulated them, removed the paint, and melted, extruded, and pelletized the material. They then submitted the material to auto manufacturers to see if 100-percent-recycled material meets their specs without any further treatment. “It only missed the mark on a couple of physical properties” out of more than a dozen measured, says Kim Holmes, vice president of sustainability, “which was very encouraging.” As is, the material “could be used for other applications,” she says.
The association is working with ISRI on phase II of its research, which will look at blends of recycled and virgin material as well as modifiers to achieve even better results. It also will test the properties of TPO that’s extruded and pelletized without a separate paint-removal process.
Kozora did research and testing on postconsumer recycled TPO for a company she worked for prior to joining IAC Group. “We had very good success using 15-percent recycled and 85-percent virgin” TPO in a blend that could meet original equipment manufacturer specifications, she says, including impact resistance and paint adhesion. ACI’s Melton says his customers typically create a blend with 15 to 30 percent recycled material. ACI and Geo-Tech do much or all of their TPO processing on a tolling basis, creating products that meet specific customers’ specifications. “I don’t think there’s any technical barrier today” to using recycled TPO plastics, Whaley says. “The technology exists to do it.”
In addition to specific performance characteristics, consistency and low prices are essential for North American consumers, processors say. “Many molders today are looking for the cost savings they can find with recycled,” Melton says, plus “consistency in material and consistency in supply. If both are covered, they will use recycled.” Porter agrees that “consistency, dependability, [and a] reasonable price” are what consumers want. The same goes for his suppliers, he notes. “We’re generally looking for consistency. We want to know people are bringing in [the] same amount each week or month as opposed to just occasionally.”
Both domestic and export markets existed for TPO bumpers, GMR’s Cohen says. East and West coast suppliers typically sold material to China; Midwest sellers were more likely to find domestic buyers. As of late August, however, the export market is dead, he says. “It’s as quiet and cold as any point in last 15 years. … No one in China is buying, almost literally, or they’re in the last throes of buying. … The whole ecosystem is almost collapsing, there’s so much uncertainty.”
Knibbe agrees with that assessment. Postindustrial material has always found domestic buyers, he says, but China used to buy “a fair amount” of postconsumer material. This slowed during its Green Fence enforcement effort several years ago and again earlier this year, under National Sword. With China poised to implement a ban on imports of some grades of scrap plastics, Cohen is not sure TPO
bumpers will make the cut. If export market demand declines, the market in North America “will have a surplus of supply and limited demand, which will make the economics even more challenging,” he says. Even now, Knibbe says, with the Chinese slowdown in buying, low market values, and “new production scrap at unprecedented levels, there’s a huge supply of [recycled] TPO.” And with prime material at historically low prices, molders that have been on the fence about whether to use recycled materials are many times choosing prime, he says.
“Lack of markets is my greatest concern right now,” Metalpro’s Ward says. “We have been able to find legitimate consumers, but … presumably, with the export market not being there, that further limits markets. We very rarely exported, but at least that’s been an option.”
LKQ’s Maselli also says finding markets has been difficult. As recently as two years ago, “people were fighting over regrind, the price was going up,” he says. “We had no issues selling the product.” About 18 months ago, however, prices started to decline, he notes. In the past six months demand has been getting better, but “the past year hasn’t been easy.”
PADNOS’ recycled TPO stays close to home. “Ours typically goes back to the molders” of auto parts who often were the source of the material, Knibbe says, “unless there’s extra supply. Then we might sell to a compounder” who will most likely sell the material to a different molder.
Recycling TPO in a closed loop back into auto bumpers is perhaps the highest, best use for the material, but it’s not the only use. LKQ’s Maselli believes some of his material was used as filler in artificial turf fields; several processors mention septic tanks. Trash cans and plastic pallets are other uses, Porter says. “I’d love to find new applications for it,” he adds. “We’re aware of a handful of buyers, but we’d love to find more end users. … We’d welcome somebody to research it and find new applications.”
Finding new end markets is the goal of phase II of PLASTICS’ research, which will run in tandem with the collaboration with ISRI, Holmes says. Documenting the material’s physical properties in different concentrations and blends is a top priority for several PLASTICS demonstration projects, she notes. “Ideally, we’d be able to build a library of physical properties of different recycling streams so [companies] could … evaluate this as a feedstock for manufacturing,” she says. “If we can fill those information gaps and accelerate that process for them, we can unlock those opportunities more quickly than any company could do on its own.” She hopes that certain proportions of TPO will work as a modifier in PP to raise its impact resistance, for example, broadening the potential applications to “underground storage tanks, drain pipe, anything where a PP application would be good but it needs a little more strength.” If research can “piece together all the dots in the value chain, we can begin to underscore the opportunities for the material,” she says.
The next step is testing recycled TPO in specific end markets and then getting “some commitment from people to use the material,” Holmes says. To date, one compounder is looking at using recycled TPO for a noncritical part for an OEM; a “durable goods and recreational vehicle manufacturer” also has expressed interest, she says.
Once the researchers develop data sheets of the physical properties and performance of recycled TPO, Holmes says, “we’ll shop that information around, go to manufacturers and say … can you consider using this material, and would you like a sample?” At that point, she hopes ISRI members will volunteer to provide ELV bumpers as sample material. “The benefit for scrapyards participating is that they’ll get to cost out how recovery works at their facility and build a relationship with a [plastics] recycler and [potential] customers, building the foundation of a system that can quickly scale up across the United States.”
Phase I of the research resulted in an economic pro forma auto recyclers and salvage yards can use to model potential scenarios for ELV bumper recycling, Holmes says. PLASTICS plans to make that pro forma tool available on its website by October. The dynamic spreadsheet allows a yard to enter data points for a few variables, such as how many cars it processes a year, average hourly labor costs, the time it takes to remove a bumper, the costs to ship, and so on. “If an auto yard can get prices from plastics recyclers and can estimate shipping costs,” the form “calculates what the per-pound cost or profit can be,” she says.
“I really believe that you cannot have a healthy recycling system without the demand piece,” Holmes says. “We represent the converters and brand owners. That’s where we’re best positioned to effect change. Working with ISRI—those aggregating material, doing recovery work—we can leverage our competencies and address those multiple issues.” She also hopes to work with ISRI to develop a directory of recyclers who process TPO bumpers, from granulating to paint removal to extrusion and pelletizing. “If we’re able to turn on the valve and get demand going for the material, they’re positioned to jump right into that opportunity,” she says.
Supply, processing, and transportation barriers are “easily overcome when you have the demand,” Geo-Tech’s Whaley says. “People will make the supply side work” if the demand is there. “They always do, no matter how difficult” the challenges appear to be.
Rachel H. Pollack is editor-in-chief of Scrap.
Bumper Design for Recycling Concerns
Recyclers are quick to note how vehicle bumper designs impede recycling—and designs are getting worse from a DFR standpoint, not better, they say.
Start with the metal clips that hold the bumper to the vehicle. Recyclers must remove them by hand to prepare the bumpers for processing, a process that takes several minutes per bumper. Better design for disassembly would speed that process, says Susan Kozora, director of advanced engineering at IAC Group (Southfield, Mich.). “The less labor you have to put into removal, the more likely someone is going to recover it,” she says. The same idea applies to the other TPO parts inside the vehicle, such as the door panel and different trim pieces. Making vehicles easier and more cost-effective to disassemble is “one of the bigger keys” to getting more TPO recycled, she says.
If some metal bumper clips slip through the cracks, plastics processors can use magnets to detect them in the flake. Carmakers are moving from metal clips to acetate or nylon ones, however, which “makes recycling very difficult,” says Ron Whaley, CEO of Geo-Tech Polymers (Waverly, Ohio). “You can’t detect acetate on a large scale,” he says. He understands the rationale for the change—it’s cheaper, and it helps reduce vehicle weight to increase gas mileage. “But the engineers are not really thinking about the end of life.”
Randy Knibbe, plastics division director of PADNOS (Holland, Mich.), worries about chrome-plated emblems on front grilles, which sometimes are molded in one piece with bumpers, and decorative chrome strips. “It’s very thin plating, but it is metallic, and it’s next to impossible to get off,” he says, short of cutting it off. “If you did pull it off, the residual adhesive would be there, which is also a big challenge.” Even if China continues to accept postconsumer TPO, with the increased scrutiny of contaminants, they’re not going to want anything metallized or plated, he points out.
Other vehicle design elements that make bumpers “challenging right now,” Knibbe says, are running lights with LED bulbs, glass, and copper wire harnesses. “It used to be just a big old plain bumper,” he says. But with “modern engineering [and] fancy bling, today it’s harder to recycle than ever.”
Better design for recycling would result in automakers finding “ways to design things that have the fancy stuff consumers want, but with resins compatible to recycle and reuse them,” he says.