What is Fluff?

When a discarded car gets to an auto recycler, it will go through a number of steps in the recycling process. First, it may be dismantled to retain any useable parts, recover any fluids and batteries. Once the harmful materials have been removed and the usable parts recovered, the car is ready to be crushed and then placed in an automobile shredder. After shredding, ferrous metals and non-ferrous metals are extracted to be recycled and reused for other purposes. In an ideal situation, automobile shredders have been able to recover about 80 to 85 percent of the vehicle weight by processing the scrap metal. The plastics, fibers, glass, foam, rubber, wood, sand, dirt, and other materials make up the remaining 15 to 20 percent and are known as automotive shredder residue (ASR), or auto fluff.

What Can We Do With Fluff?

Using car fluff to replace dirt as a landfill cover is one innovative use today, explains one industry professional who has studied this issue, Paul Lerner of Davis Industries, a scrap metal recycling company in Lorton, Virginia. Using fluff as an alternative landfill cover saves money, speeds up operations and is a more environmentally preferable approach than dirt. Fluff provides these advantages because it does not need to be stripped off the landfill each morning. Also, fluff is less expensive. Fluff reduces odors, and provides a more solid base on which vehicles may move and work.

Another important innovation in auto fluff recycling is using ASR for energy recovery. For example, the fluff itself may be used as fuel in cement kilns. The EPA a number of years ago awarded a grant to California to study the use of ASR as a supplemental fuel in cement kilns, to both fuel and kilns and manufacture the cement. According to the California agency’s report, the process results in a mix of ASR that has a very high temperature—about 13,240 BTUs per pound, which is a higher temperature than most types of coal. According to the project highlights, about one million tons of ASR could be recovered for fuel in the US using this option, which would comprise about six percent of the US cement manufacturing industry’s energy consumption and save $50 million annually (assuming $50 per ton of coal.) One million tons of avoided landfilling would save automobile shredders about $20 million annually.

Another alternative is turning the fluff into fuel itself. ASR is full of plastics which are made from petroleum. Efforts are being made to break down the petrochemicals in those plastics to transform them back to fuel.

The Changing Nature of Fluff

It is important to address the issue of fluff, as there may be more fluff to deal with in the future. This is because as cars are being made lighter and more fuel-efficient, they are using less and less metal and more plastics. Apart from the light nature of the materials, they are becoming more complex as they are designed to carry out different functions. Auto glass, for example, is being layered with new chemicals and coatings or embedded with other materials, so that is suitable for projecting head-up displays.

The industry will need to look for engineering solutions in manufacturing so a car body can be disassembled in such a way so as to make it easier to recycle all the parts. In fact, the EPA is pushing vehicle manufacturers to design vehicles with recovery in mind and to reduce toxic and hazardous elements in vehicle shredding. As the EPA stated in its project description of fueling cement kilns: “recycling material that would otherwise become waste can generate a host of environmental and economic benefits while protecting people’s health.”