North America has more than 250 million cars and trucks, and although the steel gets recycled maybe 30 to 35 percent (plastic parts mostly) are left over. They’re working on uses for those parts when they’re ground up (it’s called “fluff”).
The goal is recycling 100 percent of the car, so it’s nice to hear that, through a new process, Safelite AutoGlass recycled more than a million windshields last year. Yes, windshields. I’d thought that laminated glass—made of two sheets of glass sandwiching clear resin called polyvinyl butyral (PVB)—was too complicated to recycle.
Safelite replaces and repairs windshields and other glass, with 500 stores and 5,000 mobile units in the U.S. Repairs have a tenth the carbon footprint of replacement, so it’s great when that can be done. But windshield recycling is recent, dating only to 2012.
The process is somewhat similar to tire recycling, because both have large waste streams, and both have found a partial answer in reuse for road building.
Safelite’s partner is Georgia-based Shark Glass Recycling North America, which developed the process. According to Dino Lanno, a Safelite manufacturing and supply chain vice president, “A large machine with a flywheel and grinding bits takes in 40 or 50 windshields at a time and pulverizes the glass and separates it from the PVB. You end up with flakes of vinyl and powdered glass.”
Most of the latter becomes PVB scrap in pellet form, which is a useful byproduct. It becomes carpet backing (in use at San Francisco Airport, among other places), paint and primer and other plastic stuff. The powder, called “glass cullet,” goes into fiberglass insulation, asphalt road construction and other uses.
The recycling center’s location on the east coast is strategic, since Safelite has more business east of the Mississippi than out west. A west coast plant may come later, but currently 70 percent of Safelite locations are processing their windshields.
Tom Feeney, Safelite’s president and CEO, told me that the process isn’t yet making money, which would be ideal—then there’s an unshakable business case for it. Feeney told me the company processes windshields because, well, “It’s the right thing to do.”
The company is also trying to reduce its vehicle miles driven, and is testing electric vehicles, two of which I saw in Rome this week. Safelite is owned by the big international Belron company, which has its own environmental commitments.
Lots of other companies replace windshields in the U.S., including thousands of body shops. Most of them end up in landfills, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If more players get on board, cullet and PVB will gain in both uses and economic value. Here's a closer look at the recycling process on video: