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GREAT FLAKES STATE: Reduced for use

Plastic bumpers were filling Wisconsin until a man with a plan got a grinder

February 28, 2002


WAUKESHA, Wis. -- Bob Druhn is tough on plastic car bumpers, having pulverized thousands of them in the last several weeks alone.

Druhn is seeking to build a profitable business and help solve what has become a national problem: disposing of millions of plastic bumpers that are pulled off wrecked cars.

Druhn, owner of All American Plastic Recycling in Waukesha, Wis., has a machine that grinds up a full-size automobile bumper in seconds. The ground plastic is then boxed and shipped to a company in Kentucky, where it's used to make septic systems. His company, with only six employees, has been grinding up bumpers for about three months.

Druhn decided to start recycling car bumpers because of high demand. Bumpers are shipped to Wisconsin from across the country because the state's landfill laws allow disposal of the junked parts, he said.

But burying bumpers in landfills is expensive, so businesses that handle thousands of them are turning to recycling.

There's no shortage of junked plastic car bumpers, Druhn says. He gets them from as far away as Wyoming. And there's no snobbery in recycling: Most bumpers are ground up the same, whether they come from a Geo Metro or a Mercedes Benz C-Class.

The grinding machine alone doesn't do the trick. Before each bumper is reduced to flakes, contaminants such as bumper stickers, chrome strips and pieces of metal must be removed by hand.

Removing contaminants is a tedious but important process since something as small as a metal screw could do hundreds of dollars in damage to the bumper grinder's 48-inch blades. Workers use metal detectors and magnets to help find things such as a car key that was taped under a bumper for safekeeping.

"Metal is a real headache for us," Druhnsaid. "We look very hard to find it, but sometimes it still gets by us."

Through plastic bumpers, Druhn has seen a unique snapshot of American life. He has peeled off stickers touting nudist camps, environmental causes, religion and the Girl Scouts.

He has seen bumpers that have been cracked and squished in every type of wreck imaginable, and sometimes he wonders about the stories behind them.

"These bumpers have touched a lot of lives," Druhn said.

For a variety of reasons, the bumpers that end up at Druhn's recycling facility were rejected for reuse at body shops. Mostly, the bumpers have cracks or dents that couldn't be repaired.

After Druhn grinds car bumpers into flakes, he ships the material to Champion Polymer Recycling in Winchester, Ky. There the flakes are melted and shaped into underground septic systems that are sold throughout the world, said Champion Polymer manager Ron Sherga.

The type of plastic used in car bumpers is ideal for manufacturing underground septic systems. It lasts for many years and it flexes when the ground shifts, Champion Polymer officials said.

As the demand for recycled plastics increases, prices for the material eventually will increase, Druhn said. Some of his plastics that aren't from car bumpers are used by a company that makes goose decoys, and Druhn said he's exploring markets for plastics used to build outdoor decks. Carpet companies are also interested in recycled plastics.

"We are in this for the long term," Druhn said. "I think that's the way we have to look at it."

-- Cherri (, February 28, 2002


Recyclingis OK, but it is hard to believe that shipping cross country is cheaper. Here in the Twin cities anything cumbustable is burned to make electricity.

I have seen outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic. It looks pretty tough.

-- John Littmann (, March 01, 2002.

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