Junked cars generate heaps of plastic 'fluff'


Frank Gambel's junkyard dogs sleepily wag their tails when a stranger wanders up to the two mountains of ground-up cars they are supposed to be guarding. After all, the owner of Baltimore's Brooklyn Salvage & Waste Co. would love it if someone would steal one of those piles.

One mound, of metal pieces picked out by a magnet from a machine that chops up junked cars, is money in the bank for the crusty 72-year-old. But the metal pile, which Mr. Gambel sells to steel mills for about $50 a ton, is getting smaller every day.

The other heap, a motley mix of car seats, pieces of --board and plastic bumpers, "is a pain in the ass," Mr. Gambel scowls. The mountain of "fluff," as the plastic parts of a car are known to scrap dealers, gets bigger every day.

Nobody wants to buy fluff because it is made of dozens of kinds and colors of plastic all mixed together. It wouldn't be worth much even if someone painstakingly hand-separated it all. So Mr. Gambel has to pay $50 a ton -- three times what he paid a decade ago -- to dump it in the already crowded city landfill.

It's a story that is being repeated worldwide.

Automakers scrambling to improve gas mileage by cutting the weight of cars have been replacing metal parts with lighter plastic for more than a decade -- only to create a monumental trash problem that is just now being recognized.

Disposing of junked cars has always been an environmental and economic challenge. Many states have banned dumping of lead acid batteries and contaminated motor oil, both potentially poisonous wastes, in order to encourage recycling.

Now, confronted with an avalanche of extra car plastic that no one wants, scrap dealers, plastics companies, governments and even automakers are starting to look for some way to use or eliminate fluff.

There isn't much time, though. Trash specialists say that the initial experiments haven't worked out well, and without a quick solution, the fluff problem is guaranteed to worsen dramatically.

The reason for the hurry, they say, is that, on average, it is 12-year-old cars that are being junked today -- and they contain only about 170 pounds of plastic, leaving more than a ton of metal that can profitably be ground up and recycled back into steel.

But this year's models, which will likely enter the waste stream in bulk sometime later in this decade, average 220 pounds of plastic and only about 1,700 pounds of recyclable metal. And the Society of the Plastics Industry estimates the cars of the model year 2000 will carry 80 more pounds of plastic and correspondingly less steel.

Indeed, many of today's most modern cars, including General Motors Corp.'s Saturn line, have plastic body panels, cutting the car's total amount of recyclable steel by several hundred more pounds.

Counting the unrecyclable windshields and other useless car parts, the U.S. generated about 6 billion pounds of fluff from the ++ 10 million cars junked last year, estimates Thomas Byro, fluff specialist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Virginia-based trade association.

And that's burying the profit in the scrap trade, he says.

If something isn't done soon, companies like Mr. Gambel's won't be able to pay their token $40-a-car fees for junkers and make money recycling the steel any more, Mr. Byro warns.

And if there are no more buyers of last resort for used-up cars, Mr. Byro believes that drivers by the millions will simply abandon junkers on streets, in empty lots and in dumps.

"It is a fearsome prospect," he says.

And not just aesthetically. Soaring disposal costs could change the economic structure of the automotive industry worldwide, says David Andrea, an auto industry researcher at the University of Michigan.

"The disposal costs could be reflected throughout the entire system" and will likely be reflected in the purchase prices of new cars eventually, he says.

Already, some European carmakers are spending millions in an attempt to solve the fluff problem.

In Germany, automakers expect the government to pass a law soon making them ultimately responsible for the disposal of junked cars, says Robin Woods, a spokesman for BMW in New York.

"The writing is on the wall," Mr. Woods says.

So BMW has started an expensive pilot dismantling plant, where workers take apart 2,000 junked BMWs a year in order to reclaim parts and figure out how to build future BMW's for easier disposal, he says.

"We definitely want to make cars as recyclable as possible," he says.

But after a year's experiment with dismantling, BMW says the parts reclamation hasn't worked out as planned. "The concept has changed," and BMW hopes to find some way to encourage German salvagers to use worn-out cars, Mr. Woods says.

U.S. carmakers, still feeling government pressure to improve gas mileage, are only beginning to worry about the final resting place of their products.

"They are paying more attention to recyclability in Europe. There isn't as much room in their junkyards there," explains Neil Walling, director of advanced design for the Chrysler Corp.

While U.S. carmakers hope the government here doesn't make them responsible for car disposal, Chrysler last year developed a one-of-a-kind "fully recyclable" concept car. The "Neon" uses recycled plastic to make the carpets and plenty of expensive aluminum, which is strong, light and expensive enough to encourage reclamation, Mr. Walling says.

Some of the ideas tested in the Neon are already being adopted, he says.

The "Big Three" are starting to label their plastic parts so that if someone wanted to separate out the different kinds of plastic, they could, he says.

A growing number of carmakers here and abroad are replacing steel or plastic parts with aluminum, a highly recyclable -- but expensive -- metal.

And companies ranging from the General Motors Corp. to Mobay Corp., a plastics maker, have been spurred by the profit potential in the fluff crisis to begin searching for a way to reheat or grind up fluff so it can be sold back to plastics makers.

But there isn't much likelihood U.S. carmakers will cut back on their use of plastic and return to steel any time soon.

Bill Hansen, an engineer who helped design the new plastic-bodied Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan, said that GM decided to use plastic, instead of the steel it uses on its older Astro and Safari vans, because the material "is resistant to corrosion and dents and dings. . . . And in theory, it is cheaper to redesign" when Oldsmobile wants to update the look of the van, he said.

The need for a solution is luring those interested in profiting from the abundant supply of fluff. But the ISRI's Mr. Byro, who himself is experimenting with a plan to use some of the plastic to make cement, says he is skeptical junked cars will be de-fluffed without either government action or a research miracle.

The carmakers here "are not being forced to consider disposal" the way they, by law, must consider safety and gas mileage, Mr. Byro notes. "It is government action that will get them moving" the way the German carmakers are, he says.

And unless someone finds a willing and cash-rich buyer for fluff, it is unlikely anyone would make money collecting the hundreds of kinds and colors of car plastic in use, he says.

"They'd have to have acres of bins," he says, explaining that each car built today uses about 28 different plastics -- there are usually three kinds in the --board alone, for example.

So, Mr. Byro believes, researchers are going to have to divide up the fluff problem and find uses for different components of junked cars.

He says, "There is no magic bullet."

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