Designers Take on `Green' Concerns; Recyclable Plastics Seen as Priority Series: Spotlight on the Auto Industry. Series of Articles All Appearing Today

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A CONCEPT dubbed "design for assembly" gets a lot of attention in automotive circles these days, but because of mounting interest in the environment, industry planners are now having to think about "design for disassembly."

Designers want to make sure their sketches and clay models can be easily translated onto the assembly line. But as the so-called "green revolution" takes hold, they have to take their thinking one step further. What happens, they are being asked, when their vehicles are eventually junked? Can they be cost-effectively recycled?

In Europe, strict new vehicle recycling laws will go into effect by mid-decade. And, some planners fret, similar laws may follow here in the United States if the auto industry isn't quick enough to act on its own.

Recycling is actually nothing new to Detroit's carmakers. Junk yards across the country strip abandoned vehicles of radios, engines, even fenders, doors, and other parts that may be resold. Dead batteries are torn apart, their lead reused. The remaining carcass is then sent through a shredder.

At Detroit's Ferrous Processing, one of the Midwest's largest scrap processing facilities, it takes just 37 seconds to transform a 3,500-pound car into pieces. Iron and steel scrap, collected by an electromagnet, are melted down for reuse.

But there's a lot left behind. As much as 10 to 15 percent of a typical car's weight is plastic "fluff," which must be dumped into the nearest landfill. Now, 200 to 300 pounds might not seem like much, but multiply that by the 9 million vehicles junked in the US each year, and it is a major contribution to landfill crowding.

And the situation could get worse. In order to increase vehicle fuel economy, automakers are putting their products on a diet, replacing more and more heavy metal components like bumpers and even body panels with lightweight plastics.

"We must recycle polymer wastes, not just metal," stresses E.M. Rowbotham, a recycling expert with Ford of Europe.

In Europe, new laws will require that by mid-decade, 80 percent of the plastics in a junked car be recycled. Manufacturers are responding in several ways.

First, they are trying to make it easier to remove plastic parts from the steel carcass of junked cars. …