Recycled vehicle components

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We already have bio-based foam on more than two million vehicles and we’re looking to convert 100% of our fleet to it in the future.” –Jerry Brown, chief engineer-seat and restraint engineering, Ford Motor Company

Motor vehicles – from cars to heavy trucks – get a bum rap from many environmental-esqe corners these days, despite a plethora of ongoing efforts to reduce their impact upon the world’s ecosystems.

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For example, if you’ve seen a cartoon of a truck in the editorial pages of any U.S. newspaper, most likely it’s belching big black smoke – because, of course, that’s what “dirty” diesel powered trucks do, right? Well, no, actually. Buy a 2010-compliant big rig and in many cases its exhaust will be cleaner than what we’re breathing in most major U.S. metropolitan locales these days.

[They’ll actually be acting as air scrubbers, or sorts, out in the Los Angeles basin, capturing all sorts of soot particulates in their DPFs – talk about leaving things better than they found them!]

At either end of the vehicle scale – light to heavy – fuel economy is improving. Big rig makers such as Daimler Trucks North America, Volvo Trucks North America, and Mack Truck are touting 3% to 5% fuel efficiency gains for their 2010-compliant products. On the lighter side, car makers such as Ford Motor Co. are boosting fuel economy though the use of lighter, more powerful, yet fuel sipping engines married to more sophisticated transmissions.

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For example, the fuel efficiency Ford’s 2010 model Fusion sedan jumped 21% over the 2009 version – stepping up from 28 mpg to 34 mpg in highway driving – in part due to a new six-speed transmission, which offers a wider gear span than four-speed transmissions and thus a better platform for attaining fuel efficiency gains.

Yet it doesn’t stop there, because automobiles are among the most recycled consumer products in the U.S. these days, with more than 95% of all end-of-life vehicles processed for recycling – compared to 52% of all paper products and 31% of all plastic soft drink bottles in our country.

Now, Ford and other car makers are taking things a step further – using a variety of recycled and other more “eco-friendly” products in the actual manufacturer of cars and light trucks. While I am using Ford to show off a lot of this stuff, recognize that most automakers are engaged along similar lines. So check some of Ford’s initiatives out:

• Using bio-based materials, such as soy, to make polyurethane foams on the seat cushions, seatbacks and headliners on 11 vehicle models. Some two million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles on the road today with bio-foam seats equates to a reduction in petroleum oil usage of approximately 1.5 million pounds.

• Post-consumer recycled resins such as detergent bottles, tires and battery casings are being used to make underbody systems, such as aerodynamic shields, splash shields and radiator air deflector shields. The latest example is the engine cam cover on the 3.0-liter V-6 2010 Ford Escape. This effort alone has helped divert between 25 and 30 million pounds of plastic from landfills, Ford said.

• Using post-industrial recycled yarns for vehicle seat fabrics on the Ford Escape and Escape Hybrid. A 100% usage of recycled yarns can mean a 64% reduction in energy consumption and a 60 percent reduction in CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions compared to the use of new yarns.

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• Repurposed nylon carpeting made into nylon resin and molded into cylinder head covers for Ford’s 3.0-liter Duratec engine, now being used in the 2010 Ford Fusion sedan and Escape SUV.

• Wheat straw-reinforced plastic for the third-row storage bins of the 2010 Ford Flex SUV. The natural fiber replaces energy-inefficient glass fibers commonly used to reinforce plastic parts.

• Ford’s European Focus sedan model uses recycled polymer in such components as the battery tray, wheel arch liners, seat fabric and carpets. Materials engineers are in the process of determining if recycled polymer can be used for similar components in the global Focus coming to North America and Europe in 2011.

“Natural fiber-reinforced plastics and plant-based polymer resins help reduce CO2 emissions by being entirely compostable – and, in some cases, they reduce weight, which helps improve fuel economy,” said Debbie Mielewski, technical leader at Ford Plastics Research.

“We have to entertain the thought of bio-replacement in baby steps, looking at every aspect of a car that could be green,” she added. “One day I hope to see the world of automotive plastics go totally compostable, removing petroleum [based products] by 100%.”

Of course, sustainable materials need to meet the same high standards for quality, durability and performance as virgin material; there can be no compromise on product quality stressed Valentina Cerato, an engineer with Ford materials in Europe. Yet they seem to be doing just that.

Other “alternative” materials research continues, looking at a replacement for the fiberglass used between the headliner and roof sheet metal that will be bio-based, lighter weight, and will deliver improved acoustics and neutralize odor.

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Ford also said its researchers are developing natural-fiber composites as a potential substitute for the glass fibers traditionally used in plastic car parts to make them stronger, and again reducing vehicle weight, which helps improve fuel economy and reduces emissions. Natural fiber composites also are more eco-friendly, because their production and end-of-life incineration are less energy intensive than glass fibers, which also results in lower emissions, the automaker added.

Ford's researchers also are investigating ways to use plastics made entirely from sustainable resources such as corn, sugar beets, sweet potatoes and other vegetables. These renewable materials will help reduce dependency on petroleum, reduce CO2 emissions and allow the composting of the material at the end of a vehicle’s life, noted John Viera, Ford’s director of sustainability and environmental policy.

“By increasing the use of recycled or renewable content and reducing the use of undesirable materials whenever possible, we’re helping to reduce waste to landfills by millions of pounds,” he said – and saving money in the process, too; approximately $4.5 million by using recycled materials in 2009 alone.

Part of the “recycling” trick with vehicles is to make design them so dismantling, reuse, recovery and recycling of them at end-of-life is easier, Viera noted. That means reducing the use of hazardous substances, increasing the use of recycled materials in vehicle manufacture, and above all ensuring that parts do not contain mercury, hexavalent chromium, cadmium or lead.

Reuse is a big part of the recycling story as auto recyclers supply more than one third of all ferrous scrap to the U.S. scrap processing industry, he pointed out, as when manufacturers use scrap iron and steel instead of newly produced ore, they reduce air and water pollution by more than half during the manufacturing process.

“In theory, end-of-life vehicles are nearly 100% recoverable. In practice, however, the cost in energy and labor to recover all vehicle material often exceeds the value of the materials and offers insignificant value to the environment,” Viera said. “We remain focused on achieving the highest economically viable and environmentally sound recovery percentage possible.”

These are good environmental stories auto and truck makers have to tell. Problem is, few know about it, nor do they care to listen. Hopefully, though, that will change – and change soon.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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