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The road to auto plastic recovery

Recommendations for recycling plastics from end-of-life vehicles.

Late in 2021, the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC) was retained by Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to undertake a study of the current practices related to the recovery of auto plastics from end-of-life vehicles in Canada. The end purpose of the study was to develop a potential Roadmap to contribute to Canada’s 2030 zero plastic waste target.

In 2019,  Deloitte and Cheminfo Services produced a Plastics Report for ECCC that estimated the auto sector produces about 309,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually, or about 9% of the total. This represents the second largest sectoral producer of waste plastics after plastic packaging which accounts for 47% of the total.  Other significant sources of plastic waste are textiles and electronics (both at 7%), and construction waste at 5% of the total.

In the average year in Canada, about 1.6 million vehicles are retired.  Each end of life vehicle (ELV) contains about 175kg of various plastic resins. Recycling rates for plastics contained in ELVs are currently low because markets are not available for many of the plastics currently found in vehicles; the plastics tend to be contaminated with other plastics and metal components and in some cases are composites for which end markets are not currently developed. Technologies do not currently exist to recycle all of the different plastic components and multi-resin parts found in vehicles.

Surveying key players
An on-line survey was sent out to 500 auto recyclers, shredders and scrap buyers across Canada with over 90 responses – a phenomenal result. The survey was followed up by phone interviews with a wide variety of auto recyclers – both those filling out the survey, and those targeted because of  their large presence in the sector.

Suggestions collected from both the survey and interviews on how the Government of Canada could facilitate an increase in auto plastic recycling included: providing bins for plastic collection at each auto recycler site; providing shredders to shred collected plastic to reduce the volume before transportation; providing regional shredders; providing a bounty to recover labour and full costs for removing marketable auto plastics; creating end markets for auto plastics; creating regional processing facilities; better labelling of auto plastics for easy identification of plastic resin; identifying types of plastic that are reusable/recyclable and pay per piece recovered; and providing funding to transport auto plastics to recyclers.

In late January 2022, a time and motion tear down study was carried out at Standard Auto Wreckers in Port Hope on five vehicles which represent popular vehicles in the Canadian market (Ford F150; Dodge Caravan; Toyota Corolla; KIA Soul and Toyota Highlander). The goal was to measure the amount of time required to extract different plastics from end of life vehicles as part of both the regular depollution and auto parts harvesting process.

The tear down study concluded that it was very expensive to recover auto plastics at this stage in the value chain, as the average measured rate of plastics removal was 28kg/hour.  At this rate, it would take approximately 34 hours to remove 1 tonne of auto plastic from ELVs at an estimated cost of $3,400/tonne. While this is not considered a realistic or economically viable approach, a few specific actions hold promise.

Thirty-one well established industrial plastics recyclers across Canada were contacted to determine those who were interested in the ARC Auto Plastics study.  Two of the companies contacted took samples from the tear down study to explore technical options for recycling. University researchers active in plastics recycling research were contacted to determine their level of interest in exploring technologies to process mixed plastics from the tear down/time in motion study.  Some of these are considered promising partners for the next phase of the research.

ARC Roadmap Recommendations
The ARC Roadmap recommended a three-year research program potentially diverting over 83,000 tonnes of auto plastics from landfill with a total estimated budget of around $6,340,000.

The six elements of the -year research program are:

1. Develop Auto Plastics Database –The ARC Auto Plastics Roadmap research study identified a serious lack of data on the plastic resins and composites used for various auto components in different makes, models and years of vehicle.  This information is needed for long term program planning and evaluation. Development of an auto plastic database could be hosted by ARC (or another suitable organization) and would provide the data needed to evaluate program performance, as well as for longer term program planning.

2. Collision Repair Sector Research – Research for the ARC Auto Plastics Roadmap identified that the collision repair sector could potentially be a promising location where auto plastics could be recovered for recycling.  A research project is proposed to quantify the potential opportunity.

3. Bumper Recycling Enhancement – Research for the ARC Auto Plastics Roadmap showed that bumpers are made of TPO which is a recyclable plastic resin. Some bumper recycling activity is already underway in Canada.  Bumpers are easily removed from most but not all end of life (EOL) vehicles, therefore minimal labour cost is involved.  The proposed enhancement program would provide a bounty to auto recyclers and potentially collision repair locations (see research project #2 above) to encourage auto recyclers to remove and store bumpers separately for collection and recycling.

4. Gas Tank Recycling – Most gas tanks in Canada are made of a combination of plastics (some are steel).  Gas tanks are a good target to increase the recycling of auto plastics as they need to be removed from vehicles anyway for depollution.  The challenge is that technologies are not yet available to recycle the combination of plastic materials used in gas tanks, which also contain some gasoline residues. This research project would support technology development to explore and establish end markets for gas tanks, eventually leading to a gas tank recycling program.

5. Mixed Auto Waste Plastics Research & Development:  The tear down/time in motion study identified a reasonable opportunity to separately collect all auto plastic removed from a vehicle during the regular process of parts harvesting at auto recycler sites. However, the plastic recovered is a mixture of  plastic resins for which markets are not currently available.  This research project would support technology development to establish end markets for collected mixed plastic from auto recyclers.

6. Vehicle Lights Recycling Enhancement- Vehicle lights are readily accessible in EOL vehicles and contain valuable plastic resins but it is time consuming to dismantle the lights into the separate plastics for recycling. A research program is suggested which could lead to a bounty program if determined that this approach is economically viable.

The ARC Roadmap looked at recovery of plastics pre-shredder. As all ELVs are eventually shredded to recover the valuable metals, this leaves behind a mixed waste stream which plastics represents about 40%. The recovery of auto plastics from ASR (auto shredder residue) is in the early stages of development and when technically viable would also offer a promising route for Canada to recover auto plastics.

Actions To Move to A Circular Economy For Auto Plastics
In addition to the practical hands on elements of the Roadmap presented above, six actions were recommended to move Canada forward towards a circular economy for auto plastic:

Action #1: Clarify the federal government and CCME’s plans and actions to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030.

Action #2:  Engage the Canadian automotive industry to become leaders in policies, plans and actions to increase automotive plastics reuse (e.g., dismantling) recycling and recovery (i.e., from auto shredding processes) and to reduce overall automotive plastic waste generation.

Action #3:  Measure and track reliable data on current auto plastic waste generation, reuse, recycling  and auto plastics waste diversion

Action #4: Establish a multi-stakeholder body to focus on automotive plastics and other after-market critical issues

Action #5: Investments in auto plastics reuse/recycling innovations, collection and processing infrastructure and skills training are critically needed.

Action #6:  The Canadian and global automotive sector is undergoing profound and positive changes. The ”re-make” of the industry towards electric vehicles presents a unique opportunity to begin to design new EV products with “Design for Environment”, allowing for easier removal of plastics for repair, reuse and recycling in mind.

The Roadmap was submitted to ECCC by the March 31, 2022 deadline for their evaluation. A follow up meeting was held between ARC, ECCC and the consultants who worked on the study to review the report in more detail. The study was also presented to the Government of Canada’s Vehicle Sector Working Group and the Automotive Manufacturers Working Group.

The study has also been sent to the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI), the Canadian Chemistry Association – Plastics Division, the Canadian Plastic Pact, the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association (CVMA), and the Global Automakers of Canada (GAC).

The Roadmap, plus the three Technical Memos, can be downloaded at

This article originally appeared in Recycling Product News August 2022.

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