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Drive Life : June 4th 2010
1HERSA1 F014 14 Drive Life June 4, 2010 drive.com.au The right fluff RECYCLING SALLY DOMINGUEZ There's money to be made from scrapped cars --- and increasingly sophisticated techniques are being used to pick their entrails. Fluff-buster . . . cars on the scrapheap; Trip Allen; and Allen's truck-based system close up. Main photo: Craig Abraham. Apparently more than 99 per cent of Australian households recycle their rubbish -- but what do they do with their conked- out cars? If you lined up the 750,000 or so cars that Australians discard every year, you would have a motionless motorcade stretching from Melbourne to Perth. The 20 per cent of spent cars that are not recycled would form a conga line from Melbourne to Canberra. Ending the dump line in Canberra is appropriate because unlike most developed countries, Australia has no legislation demanding that recycling car wrecks be mandatory. From the 600,000-ish wrecks that are recycled, car dismantlers will pick the metals and other reusable parts, salvaging steel equal to the weight of eight Sydney Harbour Bridges. The economics dictate that recyclers will generally spend no more than three minutes stripping a car and their focus during that time is on reclaiming steel. Despite the availability of dismantle instructions by most major manufacturers, Australian recyclers are not legally bound to remove and dispose of the mercury switches or lamps in these cars. Mercury is a naturally occurring element that bioaccumulates in plants and animals and affects the human nervous system. Most developed countries have mercury removal programs in place to minimise the risk of mercury ending up in landfill. Despite discontinuing the use of mercury switches in the mid-1990s, most manufacturers still use up to five milligrams of mercury in their cars within their anti-lock brake systems and/or cabin LCD screens. With no local mandate or financial incentive to spend the minute or so needed to remove these components for recycling, it is up to the individual recycler to decide whether the mercury goes or stays. The remaining 30 per cent weight of an Aussie car wreck generally includes plastics, foams, ferrous metals, fluids and other nasties that are passed through a shredder and transformed into fist-sized lumps and metal-strewn, sand-like "fines". Shredder residue created from cars, appliances and other consumer items comprises 1 per cent of Australia's total waste. In a masterstroke of PR genius this noxious brew is universally referred to as "fluff" or "flock". Lets face it -- who would worry about a little "fluff" in the landfill? The ACT, that's who. Shredder waste is sent to the site with the cheapest dump rates. But in 1999, 2000 tonnes of interstate "fluff " dumped at an ACT landfill site exposed workers to more than 10 times the acceptable lead levels for more than a year. This incident means that ACT landfills no longer accept shredder waste and the bulk of our "flock" and "fluff" is buried in NSW and Victoria. ELV, which stands for End of Life Vehicle treatment, is a tricky proposition for Australia. The low population and the way we are spread makes centralised collection difficult and the return on investment for sophisticated ''fluff '' recycling equipment is not compelling. Unlike some European countries, we don't dump fluff on our neighbours, although we do send our expired hybrid batteries offshore for recycling. We have only one company, CMA Ecocycle, that recycles mercury-filled components and they are focused on the 50 million mercury-holding fluorescent tubes that are sent to landfill every year. AutoCRC, a co- operative involving eight manufacturers, two state governments and 10 research institutions, is one of the local organisations benchmarking best- practice overseas for future implementation in Australia. The education program manager for AutoCRC, Kate Neely, suggests that the lack of reuse markets for salvaged parts means that designing for disassembly is not very effective. Neely notes that recent drops in local steel prices have forced Australia's recyclers to seek value in the other salvageable materials that, longer term, may decrease the volume of shredder landfill. Reducing the volume in landfill is one benefit of recycling -- saving energy and water is another. Generally, using recycled rather than virgin metals in manufacture decreases emissions and reduces energy and water consumption. Similarly, reworking plastic saves energy and reduces dependence on the petrochemicals from which most plastics are derived. Trip Allen is a US engineer and inventor who started looking for value in shredder residue almost 20 years ago. Allen describes fluff as "a mix of valuable materials but in no way a valuable mix of materials'' -- that is, fluff is essentially a contaminated source. He also noted the "impassable disconnect" between the car companies looking for high levels of recycling and the recyclers only seeking steel. Noting even then that car components were trending towards plastic and other lightweight composites and that legislation was tightening up on landfill content, Allen and the various laboratories and auto companies he collaborates with recognised that shredder residue would increase sharply in future and thus needed to be exploited more thoroughly. Shredder residue is the US's (and probably Australia's) only large source of scrap plastic but Allen soon deduced that focusing on plastic scrap was "putting the cart before the horse": 4 per cent of the mix was made up of non-ferrous metals more valuable than steel and the copper component of that was violating US landfill rules. The extraction of the copper and other metals lurking in the fluff would be a win/win for everybody. Allen designed a cyclonic sorting system that he describes as "a financial no-brainer". Separating first with air and magnets, then with a cyclonic water process, the system is milking tonnes of copper from fluff daily and in the process separating other metals, auto glass, rubber -- and the plastic. To put the benefits of this extra step in recycling previously untapped fluff into perspective, consider the following statistics from SIMS Metals and the British Metals Recycling Association: using one tonne of recycled steel rather than primary iron ore cuts carbon emissions by 2.1 tonnes. Recycling a tonne of aluminium cuts carbon emissions by 7.9 tonnes. Recycling copper saves 85 per cent of raw production energy. The cars Australia is recycling generate about 234,000 tonnes of landfill every year. Heavy fluff.
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