DETROIT - Recycling gained a bigger role in the auto industry this month, as the two largest North American makers of plastic headliners announced milestones.
United Technologies Automotive of Dearborn, Mich., plans to regrind and reuse the polyurethane core making up its headliners, or the inside roof of a vehicle.
If successful, UT Automotive could be the only company worldwide to recycle such headliners for commercial use. The company plans to test its new recycling process in one of its plants over the next six months before shopping it to automakers.
Meanwhile, Prince Corp. of Holland, Mich. - this continent's largest headliner producer - has made good on its promise to supply the first energy-absorbing material made partly from plastic taken from used soft-drink bottles.
Prince, a subsidiary of Johnson Controls Inc. of Milwaukee, will make recycled headliners for the redesigned 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee, said Prince marketing manager Larry Cross.
MISSION: RECYCLE MORE
The headliners will include a substrate made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate and Prince's new CorteX material - made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate and other reground polyester-based resins - for head-impact protection.
Chrysler Corp., which starts production this month, plans to make as many as 110,000 Grand Cherokees during its initial production year.
Chrysler gave Jeep a mandate to use recycled materials in the popular-selling model, said product engineer Tom Lariviere with the Detroit-based Jeep interior trim group. The Grand Cherokee uses the company's largest headliner.
'Our mission was to be more recyclable in 1999 than ever before,' Lariviere said. 'We started looking at alternative materials.'
Few other interior parts, especially large pieces, use recycled matter, said Phil Sarnacke, an analyst with consultant Philip Townsend Associates Inc. in Midland, Mich.
'No doubt about it, it's getting more attention,' Sarnacke said. 'It hasn't been real high on an automaker's priority list.'
While polyethylene terephthalate is a relative newcomer for a headliner substrate, polyurethane dominates the industry with more than half of all North American applications, Sarnacke said. That is what makes UT Automotive's plans so intriguing, he said.
The company, which makes more than 2.2 million headliners annually, was driven to find a method to reuse scrap material, said James Haney, UT Automotive's product center manager for headliners.
The supplier sends more than 2 million pounds of headliner scrap to landfills each year from its plants in Port Huron and Holland, Mich., Haney said. Most of that waste comes from trimming the headliners and punching holes in them to fit sun visors and other parts, he said.
In 1996, UT Automotive started working with scientists at the Polymer Institute, a polyurethane research facility at the University of Detroit Mercy. The researchers developed a resin that had sufficient volume for compression molding, was cost-effective compared to virgin resin, and contained improved sound-damping and acoustical properties, said Girma Gebreselassie, UT Automotive senior product engineer.
Now, the company plans to use production equipment at its Holland plant to test the 100 percent recycled resin.
Prince will thermoform its polyethylene terephthalate-based recycled headliners at its Holland plant, where the material was developed, Cross said. The company is enveloping the reused headliners into a complete overhead system, including a sun visor, grab handles and console, for Chrysler, he said.
Prince uses reground polyethylene terephthalate both in headliners and for energy-absorbing material. Its headliner substrates, known as Acousti-Cor, have been used since 1995 on dozens of applications, Cross said.
'The big news is that now we have our first commercial use of recycled materials for a safety application that protects against head impact,' said Cross, who added that it replaces polyure-thane foam. 'You wouldn't expect it to turn up there.'
Jeep plans to use more recycled materials in its interior parts, said Matt Liddane, manager of interior trim for the Grand Cherokee.
'It sure seems to have proven its case in this application,' Liddane said. 'As long as the (recycled) material meets cost and performance requirements, we won't rule anything out.'