Plastic recycling isn’t anything new. We’ve all heard about how we can reuse repurposing plastic bottles as well as recycling programs that turn plastic products into new things such as furniture, clothing, accessories, and even fencing. But who would have guessed that our trash could be turned into treasure for the automakers around the world?
50% of your modern car’s volume is plastic – unless you have a leather interior that is. As you sit behind the wheel of your car, you’ll see lots of parts made of plastic such as your dashboard, side pillars, seatbelts, cup holders, and air bags. Under the hood, you’ll find lots of plastic components as well. Your bumpers as well as mud and splash guards are also made of plastic. And it’s not just any old plastic. We’re talking recycled plastic.
Recycling in the Automotive Industry
Using recycled parts and materials isn’t anything new in the automotive industry. Car manufacturers and repair shops have been doing it for years, your local auto body shop included. Loads of car parts can be recycled including batteries, glass, rubber, seats, air bags, and doors. Engines, transmissions, and bumpers, for example, are usually checked to determine their quality before being refurbished for use in car collision repair. Some parts such as plastics, catalytic converters, and tires are recycled into new products. But that’s not all.
Numerous car manufacturers have been using recycled plastic in their vehicles for years. Chrysler, for example, uses recycled polyurethane foam plastic in its Jeep Grand Cherokee’s seat cushions. The wheel liners of the Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler 200 are composed of 64% recycled plastics. Ford is another automaker that has been using recycled plastics in their vehicles. They use damaged bumpers to create plastic materials used in producing replacement bumpers. They also use plastic water bottles – 1.2 billion each year – to make plastic components for their vehicles. Each vehicle uses an estimated 250 plastic bottles. General Motors uses plastic caps, bottles and other recycled materials to create air deflectors for its Volt as well as radiator shrouds for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups. Plastic fibers from bottles are used by Nissan to create sound insulation layers in its vehicles’ dashboards.
Benefits of Plastic Recycling in the Automotive Industry
Why is plastic recycling such a big deal in the automotive industry? Why should a car manufacturer take the time to invest in technology and processes that will allow them to use recycled plastic in making vehicles?
Building a car requires using a lot of natural resources. In fact, this activity has about as much of a carbon footprint as driving a car. So, using recycled materials would make the process less wasteful. The use of recycled materials from other people’s waste is one step towards sustainability. Another is by recycling their own waste. Some car manufacturers have partnered with certified plastic recyclers to help them set up closed-loop recycling. This allows the manufacturers to recycle post-industrial plastics from their old cars and use them in making new ones. This kind of recycling system allows them to divert waste from the landfills while getting maximum use out of the resources they have at hand. At the same time, companies are able to achieve greenhouse gas emission savings
Recycled auto body parts are used by many on collision repairs because they cost around 20 to 80% less than new parts while still meeting the industry standard. But what about recycled plastic? The increased use of plastics in car manufacturing is supposed to lower production costs as well as improve fuel consumption. There are other benefits, of course. But some manufacturers believe that the cost of recycling plastic polymers that meet industry standard can be higher than simply buying and using new materials.
While that is true, the price of recycled PET, for example, is predictable which can help provide savings when planning their long-term sourcing strategy. The cost of virgin PET, on the other hand, may fluctuate whenever the price of petroleum spikes. In addition, not all recycled plastics are expensive. According to a 2016 report by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association, recycled carbon fiber can provide a 20-40% cost savings compared to using virgin fiber. Moreover, when a company is able to establish a closed-loop recycling system, they are easily able to produce recycled materials that meet the original prime material specifications. This not only reduces waste, but allows them to save money.
Sustainability and cost are not the only incentives to using recycled plastic in the automotive industry. Consumers today demand companies to be environmentally conscious, preferring to buy products from those that prove their commitment to the same belief. It also sets the company apart. In a recent survey conducted by Accenture, 83% of the respondents stated that it was extremely important for a company to design environmentally-friendly products. Going green can not only provide you with a more positive image, it attracts consumers who want to make more “green” purchases which can translate to profit. For example, Ford’s sustainability commitment resulted in an increased market share of almost 1% in the east and west coasts.
The introduction of plastic recycling in the automotive industry has led car manufacturers to look for alternative sustainable materials in their road to sustainability. Namely, bioplastics. These are plastics that are made from renewable biomass resources. For example, Ford has developed bio-based polyurethane foams made from soy that they use to produce seat cushions, seat backs, and headrests in 11 of their vehicles.
While the automotive industry has definitely embraced the use of plastics in the design and manufacturing of vehicles, the use of recycled plastics has not yet achieved it’s full potential. The main challenge, as we’ve mentioned, is the cost of recycling plastic into a usable material that meets industry standards. That being said, the benefits are more than enough to compensate for the premium cost. Not only does this allow car companies to reduce their carbon footprint, it enables them to become more ecologically sustainable and provides consumers with the ability to make more environmentally-friendly choices.