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Auto industry gives plastics second life

August 10, 2008

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— High oil prices have pushed the auto industry to go green in more ways than improving fuel economy.

At a time of plummeting vehicle sales and production, automakers and suppliers are also being squeezed by soaring prices for key automotive commodities such as steel, aluminum and plastics.

Metals have long been recycled, but now automakers and suppliers are increasingly turning to recycled plastics to offset rising costs, and recycled plastics are showing up in bumpers, splash guards and under the hood. The savings range from a few cents a pound to half the price of new plastic, which accounts for a third to half of the price of many components.

The downside is that as a piece of plastic is recycled, its quality degrades, becoming, for instance, more brittle or less durable. So suppliers often mix recycled plastics with new material. Bumpers, for instance, often have as much as 20 percent recycled plastic.

"A lot of people, especially in this economy, are trying to cut costs, without cutting quality," said Lora Herron, a bio and recycled materials engineer at General Motors Corp. "Recycled plastics are a really good way to do that, as long as you're careful about it and watch your quality."

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