Once upon a time, car bumpers were simple hunks of metal that were straightforward to recycle.
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Today the average new car bumper is made from multiple types of plastic and may have integrated lights, turn signals, reflectors, wiring harnesses, mounting brackets and sensors.
Removing and separating the parts to get to the bumper core–the biggest chunk of material that can be recycled–is time-consuming and costly. Scrap yards typically don’t bother with it, so decommissioned bumpers that don’t sell wind up in landfill. And if you drop it off at a recycling center, they’re not going to take the time to disassemble the bumper either, and the six-foot-long object winds up in the trash.
Ultra-Poly, one of America’s largest plastics recyclers, has teamed up with the Plastics Industry Association to tackle the bumper issue. They’re shrewdly targeting repair shops as their harvesting ground, because “”Auto body shops have dumpsters filled with bumpers that they don’t want to have to pay to get [into a] landfill,” Patrick Krieger, PIA’s director of sustainability and materials, told Plastics News. And because these repair shops have an economic incentive to strip every usable part off of a bumper, what they’re left with is significantly more recyclable.
Kevin Cronin, Ultra-Poly’s vice president of sustainability and research and development, reckons they’ll process a million pounds of bumpers this year, on their way to an annual target of 10 million pounds. And it was his insight–finding a source of already-stripped bumpers, rather than looking at scrap yards–that made this initiative possible.
“[Cronin] had to create this collection stream himself,” Krieger said. “He took the information, he did a lot of creative problem-solving, and the end result is a product stream that’s great. … Hopefully other [companies] can take a lesson from that.”