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Design Considerations Affect Auto Recyclability

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CARI director notes scrap profitability harmed by unwelcome materials.

December 17, 2002

Scrap recyclers have been making a living for centuries, notes Len Shaw, executive director of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI), but product designers can make the process more difficult when unwelcome materials are used in the manufacturing process

Shaw spoke at a session sponsored by CARI at the Canadian Solid Waste and Recycling Expo in early December in Toronto. In automobile manufacturing, he cited the presence of airbags, mercury switches and non-recyclable plastics as hindrances toward full automotive recycling.

Mercury switches, by volume, are a minor contaminant in the scrap metal stream, but any traces of mercury emitted by the mills and smelters that consume scrap metal are unwelcome. Shaw noted that automakers are finally committing to stop using mercury switches, which can often be found in the trunks and glove compartments of vehicles.

Airbags—though lauded as a safety feature—include within them a carcinogenic chemical that can make its way into scrap and shredder residue streams. Additionally, airbags can make their way through auto shredder units without exploding, becoming “little bombs” when they arrive at aluminum smelters, according to Shaw.

Because North American governments like airbags as a safety feature, “now automakers are looking at designing cars with up to 14 airbags,” Shaw remarked.

While metals recycling may be centuries old, plastic recycling is not nearly as well established. Shaw noted that some 20 percent or more of newer vehicles are made from plastic—and not just one type of resin but several, often uncommon, polymers. “It’s tough to make commingled plastics like this into something—especially if they are contaminated with paints and solvent,” said Shaw.

Shaw noted that a research consortium funded by the automotive industry is suggesting ways to phase out dangerous materials and unify the plastics content.

The CARI executive director urged the recycling industry to name a “Designer of the Year,” an award that would recognize key people at a company that modified a product or created a new product that paid close attention to the product’s recyclability.

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