In a bid to enter the automotive market, Polymer Sciences Inc., a developer of plastics recycling technology, is opening two plants, in the United States and Europe.
The Alpharetta, Ga., company will invest about $2 million to build and equip a recycling plant in Duncan, S.C., by the second quarter of next year. It will open a similar $2 million plant in Europe by the third quarter of 2000, said Michael Montgomery, Polymer president and CEO.
The European site is still undetermined, but the firm is considering France or another Western European country.
Both plants will manufacture recycled thermoplastics from plant scrap using a process developed in 1994 when Polymer Sciences was founded. The process cleanly strips paint from plastic parts before they are ground and pelletized for second-generation use, Montgomery said.
The process can be used effectively with parts made of thermoplastic olefins, which traditionally have been difficult to recycle because of problems with paint removal.
'There's a real market for this,' Montgomery said. 'Scrap rates are really high with TPO parts. Cleaning paint has been an imperfect process with plastics, but we have something entirely new that can get rid of all the paint.'
Montgomery said the company wants to open as many as four plants during the next three years.
In the next several years, the company also will explore launching a post-consumer recycling program to pluck parts from end-of-life vehicles, he said.
Polymer Sciences' process is somewhat similar to a process developed by Flint, Mich.-based recycler American Commodities Inc. That firm processes 14 million pounds of recycled thermoplastics a year. American Commodities is working with automotive supplier Visteon Automotive Systems of Dearborn, Mich., and other suppliers to remove paint and contaminants from plastic bumper fascias.
Visteon, a major bumper-fascia molder, is using the mechanical process at several of its plants. The work has garnered several industry awards since it began in 1998.
Visteon processes more than 80,000 pounds of thermoplastic a week. But the supplier still would like to recycle more and would welcome a second source to boost capacity, said Tony Brooks, Visteon's materials recycling engineer.
'The door is open for more,' he said. 'We're happy with the results from (American Commodities), but we can only push so many pounds per hour through the existing system.'
He predicted that if resin prices continue to rise, there will be additional demand for recycled resin.
Polymer Sciences claims its process is lower in cost and more efficient at stripping paint than that of its competitors. But American Commodities CEO Mark Lieberman said Polymer Sciences' claims are unproven, with no manufacturing plant in place.
'There's a tremendous amount of cost required in maintaining QS 9000 capabilities and assuring supply performance,' he said. 'Developing and maintaining those qualities are essential to be considered a top supplier.'
American Commodities spent eight years developing its process, Lieberman said.
Polymer Sciences uses a proprietary shearing process that involves rubbing two opposing forces between regrind or scrap material. Paint is delaminated and breaks into smaller particles, while the resin maintains its regrind size, Montgomery said.
Minimal performance properties are lost, and recycled thermoplastics can be sold for about 43 cents a pound - about half of what the virgin material sells for, Montgomery said.
Each of the new plants will be able to produce about 90,000 pounds of recycled thermoplastics a month, Montgomery said. The firm is installing shearing and repelletizing equipment at each facility.
The new plants will have 35,000 to 40,000 square feet of space and about 25 employees, he said. Expected sales for the company have not been disclosed.
Polymer Sciences has licensed outside companies to run the plants. Duncan-based Polymer Reconstruction Inc. will operate the South Carolina plant, and the firm is negotiating with several potential licensees in Europe, Montgomery said.
'There's big interest, but we have limited funds to build plants as fast as we want to,' he said. 'We're looking for qualified companies that can understand the rigors of the automotive market.'
The company has attempted various means of eliminating paint from parts, Montgomery said. Testing processes at molders' shops in the southeastern United States, the company tried freezing parts through cryogenics and burning or steaming off the paint, he said.
Three years ago, the company found that shearing was the best means to maintain part consistency, Montgomery said.
'We found a process that was dependable and would not give molders headaches,' he said. 'With thermoplastics used on bumpers now and its advent on dashboard panels, it's a lucrative market to go into.'