Lightweight Advantage

Features - Automotive Recycling Update

While manufacturers will continue to remove weight from vehicles and explore other means to improve fuel economy, recyclers likely will not see a drastic change in automobile composition in the near future.

March 11, 2013
Curt Harler

For recyclers who earn a living from tons of material processed, the near certainty that tomorrow’s cars and light trucks will be lighter than those currently on the road gives pause. The good news, however, is that vehicles will be designed with recycling in mind and that both government mandates and auto industry economics dictate that recycled and recyclable materials will be part of the car of the future.

Recyclers, however, should not become overly concerned about dealing with new materials too soon. Change comes slowly to the auto industry.

“Because of the huge investment main-line auto manufacturers have in stamping, we are looking at stamped steel at least through 2020,” says Phil Gott, senior director of IHS Automotive, Lexington, Mass.

He says he expects to see greater use of aluminum coming later in the current decade. Aluminum typically accounts for 5 to 10 percent of scrapped automobiles by weight but represents 30 to 50 percent of the scrap value in vehicles arriving at shredding yards today.

“I’m guardedly optimistic that we’ll see some plastic stamping in the 2020 time frame,” Gott says. Forces will be driving manufacturers to find ways to lightweight vehicles, “But the real question is how wedded manufacturers are to stamping,” he adds.

Gott says he expects the mainstream market players will continue to produce stampable product—steel and some aluminum—for the foreseeable future. Admittedly, research into alternative materials is going on in Detroit and other auto manufacturing centers. The plastics fraction of new cars may increase slightly, and some new steel alloys may be introduced.

“But the auto industry is heavily invested in stamping. It is pretty clear that, through 2025 in the U.S. and through 2020 in Europe, the mainstream, high-volume vehicles will be stamped,” Gott says.

While he says Ford will continue to monitor the 2013 Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) requirements and federal mandates, Mike Tinskey, global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure, Ford Motor Co., confirms Gott’s research. “In the near-term, we do not expect any changes in the composition of future vehicles,” Tinskey says.

He says Ford has emphasized lightweighting in recent years. “It’s premature to divulge all of our lightweighting strategies, but it’s an important initiative for us.”

Other OEMs say they expect plastics to make inroads in underbody aerodynamic shields.

“Whenever there is a challenge to existing materials, alternatives say, ‘This is our chance!’” Gott says. “But then the incumbents wake up from their Rip VanWinkle slumber and meet the challenge.”

Background Drivers

Gas prices are a major driver in the move to lightweight vehicles. In August 2012, the U.S. government finalized CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards that will require an increase in fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. This will nearly double the fuel efficiency of those future vehicles compared with newer vehicles currently on our roads. In total, the Obama administration’s national program to improve fuel economy and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is predicted to save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump and to reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels.

It also will change the composition of the vehicles that enter the recycling stream. To meet the 54.5-mpg standard, these vehicles will have to be lighter and will have different form factors and motor and drive-train components.

For example, Honda of America says it will start production of a new two-motor Accord Hybrid sedan, scheduled to go on sale nationwide this fall, at its Marysville, Ohio, auto plant. This will be the third hybrid model built by Honda in America. Honda Manufacturing of Indiana was the company’s first North American plant to build a hybrid vehicle and currently produces both the Civic Hybrid and Acura ILX Hybrid models.

Companies, including the Chrysler Group, are getting serious about meeting mileage standards that were unheard of just a few years ago. The company’s all-electric Fiat 500e’s highway-cycle performance was certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at 108 mpg equivalent.

Today’s cars, on average, get less than a fifth of that fuel economy—with miles per gallon in the low 20s on average for 2013 model year vehicles. That is no better than the 1908 Ford Model-T, which got between 18 and 25 mpg.

“Life is going to get more interesting for shredders and dismantlers,” says Ronald Krupitzer, vice president, automotive market, for the Automotive Applications Council (AAC), a subcommittee of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), Southfield, Mich.

“The new standards are not designed to determine any one approach or technology for the car companies in order to comply. The car companies must comply, however, or pay significant fines,” he adds.

OEMs will be able to select new engine technologies, such as turbo charging, direct injection, stop-start, cylinder deactivation, etc., or new transmission options like eight-speed or nine-speed automatics, CVT (continuously variable transmission) or aerodynamic design to lower coefficient of drag, or lightweighting to reduce the energy required to propel the vehicle.

Going Light
OEMs seem to agree that lighter vehicles are coming. Across the industry, OEMs say they plan to double the amount of aluminum used to make cars by 2025.

“All car companies have said they plan to lower vehicle weight,” Krupitzer says. Exactly how and for which vehicles is not clear. He notes OEMs have various materials to pick from, including many grades of high-strength steel, advanced-high-strength steel (AHSS), ultra-high-strength steel (UHSS), aluminum, magnesium, plastics and carbon-fiber composites.

“We predict that each car company will select its own compliance strategy; but, in all cases, some mass reduction can be expected,” he says.

“Aluminum is the No. 2 material, by weight, used to make cars,” says Kevin Lowery, director of corporate communications at Alcoa, Pittsburgh. The metal first surpassed iron in 2006 to claim the No. 2 position. Steel remains No. 1.

“It’s driven by gas prices,” Lowery says. “Consumers want more fuel-efficient cars and they still want all the bells and whistles,” he adds.

As auto dismantlers start to see cars designed to meet the tougher CAFE standards, they will see familiar components—plastic, steel and aluminum. The car of the future will be more (or less) of the same.

Aluminum, across all OEMs, currently is recycled at a 95 percent rate, Lowery says. Although the sheer weight of aluminum in the typical vehicle will grow, Lowery says Alcoa sees no reduction in the percentage of aluminum recycled.

By 2025, the industry sees the amount of aluminum in a vehicle going from roughly 328 pounds per car today to 550 pounds. At that point, aluminum will represent about 16 percent of the average vehicle’s weight.

“I don’t think any retooling (by recyclers) is going to be needed,” Lowery says, noting that dismantlers and auto shredder operators already have processes in place to handle the aluminum fraction.

Car companies are finding out that aluminum is very expensive, SMDI’s Krupitzer counters. “I think there will be some initial parts switched to aluminum in the near term, but as car companies learn that similar weights can be achieved with steel technology at much lower cost, the likelihood of further gains in aluminum market share are unlikely.”

Power Down

Cars like the 2013 MotorTrend Car of the Year, the Tesla-S, make their marks by being lightweight and green. An electric vehicle with a 300-mile range, the Tesla-S is almost all aluminum structurally, except for the tires and glass. Its lighter weight means that drive and braking components can be lighter, too, thus reinforcing the fuel economy.

Mike Tinskey, global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure, Ford Motor Co., says his company continues to see measured growth in electrified products. Specifically, he notes, “the industry took about eight years (2004 to 2011) to achieve 2 percent hybrid market share of sales. However, from Oct 2011 to Oct 2012, the industry is now running about 3.7 percent electrified vehicles sales (battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and hybrids).”

Tinskey and others note that the growth is accelerating, even in an environment with falling fuel prices.

The unique components of electrified vehicles (e.g., the high voltage batteries) are recyclable, Tinskey says. Ford is providing instructions to aid vehicle dismantlers through its membership in the End of Life Vehicle Solutions Corp. (ELVS),

Still, a strategy has not been established on how to handle spent batteries, says Ronald Krupitzer, vice president, automotive market, for the Automotive Applications Council (AAC), a subcommittee of the Steel Market Development Institute (SMDI), Southfield, Mich. Luckily the number of such batteries is low, but experts commonly do not agree as to whether it is economical to refurbish them or reapply them to other applications after their useful life on the road is over.

Tesla offers new buyers a battery trade-in program for the lithium-ion batteries that power its Tesla-S. After eight years, the owner can trade in the old battery for a new one for a prepayment of $8,000 for a 40-kilowatt-hour battery and $12,000 for an 85-kilowatt-hour battery. The point is that the end-of-life value of the components is high enough to make even a casual observer appreciate the value of the unit.

Recycling of NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) high-voltage batteries is economically positive because of their nickel content, Tinskey says. For lithium-ion batteries, the economics are slightly more challenging, but as battery recyclers see more of these batteries, he says he expects the economics of recycling will improve. Guidance on lithium-ion batteries also is provided through ELVS.

The Arlington, Va.-based Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group (ATG) says advanced aluminum body structures in such electric vehicles could save up to $3,000 per unit by requiring fewer batteries to move a lighter vehicle.

The big question here is what will happen with the batteries, themselves. Currently, manufacturers take back the batteries in their vehicles. However, Phil Gott, senior director of IHS Automotive, Lexington, Mass., says that is because of a desire in their labs to understand degradation and failures, along with customer hand-holding, than it is for recycling.

“Battery recycling is technically possible and will be economically viable by the late 2020s,” Gott says. “It will happen either by regulation or market forces, or both.”

Six auto steel manufacturers and the Big Three auto makers formed the Auto Steel Partnership to develop better steel-based solutions for automotive use. Keep in mind that it takes four or five years to get a new design from the drafting table to the showroom, however. The steel industry is pushing high-strength, thinner steels that it says make vehicles lighter and safer.

One of Gott’s Rip VanWinkle moments came for steel around 2000. Since 2002, auto steels have become three-to-five times stronger. This means they can compete better against aluminum and plastics. The ultralight steel auto body projects go head-to-head with aluminum.

Whoever gains market share, the powerhouse materials—steel and aluminum—will not just fade away in favor of plastics, composites or other exotics. Gott says steel alloys sacrificed ductility for strength. Research now suggests that both are possible, giving steel a new grip. Very few OEMs have tried to build heavy engines or transmissions on major lines of vehicles out of anything but steel.

Most auto makers concur that hybrid vehicles or electric vehicles will grow in popularity with automakers. “To what degree and how quickly is unknown,” says Eric Mayne, Chrysler Group media manager, engineering/powertrain/safety/regulation. “Internal-combustion technologies are expected to dominate for the foreseeable future. EPA acknowledges this,” Mayne adds.

The recycling implications are to be determined. Yet, a glance at what is happening in other markets gives a good peek at what is likely to happen domestically. Do not let anyone tell you, however, that the U.S. lags in design for recovery.

The Euro Model
A good comparison might be vehicles from the same parent company: Fiat Group and Chrysler Group.

Fiat Group vehicles were approved in 2011 in Europe with 95 percent recoverability and 85 percent recyclability by weight, while Chrysler vehicles were 96.4 percent recoverable and 88 percent recyclable by weight.

The European Economic Community (EEC) is the major mover behind Europe’s ELV (end-of-life vehicle) programs.

The International Dismantling Information System Database (IDIS) updates component and materials recycling activity. It covers 67 vehicle brands and nearly 1,700 vehicle models at present.

Established by the auto industry, IDIS also looks at energy recovery from auto shredder fluff and the recycling of materials originating from ELV parts like tires. Dealers also have identified materials that are of special concern—things like Freon recovery from air conditioning systems and even the chemistry of the paints used.

Enforcement of recycling responsibility in the U.S. for carmakers at end of life has not occurred to the same degree as in Europe. “We have such vast resources and disposal sites at hand that not enforcing such mandates results in no obvious consequences to the average citizen,” Krupitzer says. “I think the cost of implementation will curb enthusiasm of carmakers to follow in European footsteps.”

Observers such as Lowery say they see no problem with end-of-life vehicle (ELV) recycling for fractions such as aluminum, which, he notes, is “infinitely recyclable.”

Tinskey says, “We do not anticipate a European style system in the U.S. market, where vehicle manufacturers become responsible for cost-free recycling of the entire vehicle.”

He notes that the system that has developed in the U.S. over the years addresses components of concern. “Presently, Ford has strict requirements limiting substances of concern and works to continuously improve the amount of recycled content and renewable materials in our vehicles,” Tinskey says.

The cars of the near future promise more and different recyclable fractions. Recyclers should carefully monitor the evolution of new technologies each model year—batteries, materials and fuel systems—Krupitzer advises. “It could be that we will see wide-ranging strategies by the carmakers, certainly not all following the same path.” However, he says, big changes will take several years to develop.

Even seats in today’s automobiles are different. Ford has begun using recycled-content yarns in its seat fabrics to reduce demand on energy and natural resources. This presents an opportunity for recycling in areas other than metal. The seat fabrics used in the 2011 Ford Explorer XLT contain 25 percent postindustrial yarns in the seat insert and 30 percent postindustrial yarns in the seat bolster.

President Obama announced the proposed standard in July 2011, joined by Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo, as well as by the United Auto Workers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized the standard in August 2012.

Among the incentives offered to buyers of light trucks and cars are those for electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and fuel-cell vehicles; some for hybrid technologies for large pickups and for other technologies that achieve high fuel economy levels on large pickups; and incentives for natural gas vehicles. All of these incentives will encourage buyers to buy the newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. It may take a year, or it may take 10, but those cars will have to be dismantled and crushed sooner or later.

While Gott would agree that new materials will enter the recycling stream eight to 10 years after the vehicle comes on the market, he sees the starting point a decade out, too, not anytime soon.

He points to the challenges Boeing faced in designing its Dreamliner. Noting that Boeing is one of the top design businesses, he says the company had to go back and rewrite its books to learn how to design with composites.

Car manufacturers are faced with the same thing, Gott maintains. While they are quite adroit at designing for crash protection and other form-factors in stamped steel, they have a long way to go with composites, he says.

“Any hope of structural composites in the auto industry in the next decade is very optimistic,” Gott says. “Just because it exists does not mean we know how to design with it and to mass produce it.”

Krupitzer agrees. He says he expects to see more of the higher steel grades (AHSS and UHSS) used for mass reduction. “Other industries also see this as an opportunity to add more lightweight parts of aluminum, magnesium, plastics and carbon fiber. In short, we do expect the composition of cars to shift because of CAFE,” he adds.

There will be niche exceptions, however. Toyota, now the world’s largest automobile maker, has its RAV4, which has extrusions bolted onto the side of the battery tray. The GM Corvette has sheet formings and castings that are TIG (tungsten inert gas) welded. Yet these vehicles— along with the BMW and its revolutionary I-series, which combines magnesium and aluminum in its engine block, and Jaguar with its aluminum use—are arguably short-line specialty products. Wealthy or progressive auto buyers are willing to pay the price for high-end design and components. Those cars are not the mass-produced vehicles that feed auto shredding plants.

Companies such as Chrysler also are looking at ways to increase the recycled content of the vehicles they put on the road. They are looking at things like polypropylenes, polyamides and polyesters in applications like air cleaner housings, battery trays, wheel liners, engine covers and intake manifolds.

Tear apart a future car and a lot of the soft trim materials will be made from recycled material. This includes the carpet, polyurethane in the foam seats and dashboard seal and polyurethane foam that uses recycled rubber from tires. Since there promises to be a market for some of these materials often treated as waste fluff, dismantlers and recyclers might have to rethink their processes.

Among the first vehicles likely to come through a dismantler with these greener components are the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Dodge Durango. However, they are not the only ones. Fiat Group’s ELV program began in Italy in 1992. By 2009, Fiat reached 82 percent in recycling and 85 percent in recovery. The company’s goal for 2015 is 85 percent recycling and 95 percent recovery.

The Outlook
“We learned in a number of seminars late last year that electrified vehicles (ones that run on electric motors, such as the all-electric-drive Nissan Leaf or plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevy Volt) are not economically attractive to the consumers apart from early adopters,” Krupitzer says. He says he feels they are likely to remain at less than 1 percent of the market until a breakthrough in battery technology and economy occurs.

Hybrids such as the Prius, however, are becoming available with less of a premium cost and their rate of sales (around 2 percent of the market) could grow significantly if the price of fuel increases. “The difficulty is that simple gasoline-engine powertrains are becoming very efficient and are generally cheaper than hybrids,” Krupitzer says.

In short, most consultants and OEMs agree that there will be efficiencies and lightweighting but no new, super material pouring into the auto recycling stream any time soon.

“Vehicle manufacturers will continue to expand their use of lightweight materials (such as aluminum, composites, etc.) to help improve fuel economy,” says Ford’s Tinskey.

“Additionally, in the case of electrified vehicles, component-specific recyclers (such as battery recyclers) are likely to adopt processes that are better suited to higher volumes when more of these vehicles reach their end of life,” he says.

But if there are changes in the ratios of materials moving through the recycling stream, they are not likely to be drastic.

Even the many new electrified vehicles that have been launched recently will last a number of years, barring collisions that total the vehicles. Those vehicles will start to trickle in, however.

“Some manufacturers have hybrids that have been in the market over 10 years and are being seen by the end of life recyclers in larger numbers now,” Tinskey notes.


The author, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor to Recycling Today and can be contacted at