Mr. Bradburn said he expected there would be a significant push in the United States to find ways to recycle and reuse materials closer to home because China began severely restricting foreign companies’ abilities to send refuse there in September. The Chinese government said hazardous waste mixed in with the recyclable material was causing environmental problems. Operation Green Fence, as China has called it, bans the import of 24 varieties of solid waste, including certain plastics and unsorted paper.
“China doesn’t want our crap anymore,” said Mr. Liss, the business council president. “In five or 10 years, China may not want any of our materials. They’re saying, ‘We don’t want your trash. We only want good quality recyclables.’ And they generate a lot of their own.”
But Mr. Bradburn was optimistic about the potential benefits.
“This will create economic opportunities to develop jobs and to process materials close to home to reduce energy and carbon footprint,” he said. “I see that developing in a significant way into 2018.”
The first zero-waste car plant in North America was Subaru’s assembly factory in Lafayette, Ind., in 2004. Tom Easterday, a Subaru executive vice president, said the company continued to find ways to reduce the creation of excess material. The employee cafeteria, for instance, switched to compostable potato-based plates, and the plant’s lighting has been switching to LED fixtures to prevent the need to extract and recycle the mercury found in other bulbs.
Each company has a long list of intriguing changes it points to as examples of new uses for materials formerly destined for the dump or new materials that are easier to recycle. Ford, for instance, said it had 300 vehicle parts that were derived from soybeans, cotton, wood and other renewable sources and has been working with the tequila maker Jose Cuervo to explore whether agave fiber can be turned into bioplastic material.
The zero-waste push has given rise to dozens of small businesses focused on various minute aspects of the production chain. Peter Feamster, owner of Innovo, has repurposed plastic in parts containers for automakers including G.M. and Ford, and has tried to persuade companies to let him fix up and resell car headlamps that are damaged during assembly. Many of those parts end up in a landfill, Mr. Feamster said, but don’t count against a corporation’s zero-waste data because they are first sent to a third party for recycling.
Mr. Feamster said automakers or suppliers sometimes use original material when recycled material would do just as well because the part’s official specifications demand it.
“I’ve got customers making parts that go underneath the body of the car, you hardly see it, but the specs say it must be 100 percent virgin material,” Mr. Feamster said. “Why would a spare tire cover have to be 100 percent virgin? Because maybe a customer will say, ‘You’re using what? Recycled material on my car I just spent $40,000 for?’ But I think that’s changing.”
Kevin Butt, Toyota’s North America environmental sustainability director, said automakers had noticed that the change had already arrived.
His company announced in April that part of its $1.33 billion investment in the Georgetown, Ky., plant where the Camry is assembled would include a new paint shop that will eliminate a currently unrecyclable hazardous waste byproduct of preparing aluminum for painting.
“There’s data out there that more and more people are coming to the conclusion that how we build cars is extremely important to them,” he said.