Picking Up Speed

The use of recycled and sustainable plastics in automotive applications is increasing.

December 17, 2009
Claudia Duranceau

 Automakers are increasingly focusing on the use of sustainable virgin and recycled plastic materials in their manufacturing processes to reduce costs and go "green" by reducing weight in their vehicles. Lightweight vehicles can use less fuel and, thus, produce less greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide.

New plastic product lines including bio-based additives are emerging in response to automakers’ endeavors for sustainable, or "green," content.




Dr. Bassam "Sam" Jody of Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, Ill., working in a CRADA (Cooperative Research and Development Agreement) with the plastics industry and the Detroit automakers, has been developing a recovery scheme for what is called "automotive shredder residue." According to Jody, "One new technology, developed at Argonne National Laboratory, can separate many types of polymers from the residue with a purity of 95 percent at a yield never before attained in the recycling industry."

He continues, "Using the new Argonne technology, rather than being sent to a landfill, the shredder residue can now be fed to recovery facilities, which combine mechanical and flotation separation processes to produce individual plastics that can be used or recycled."

The U.S. government and industry have partnered to devise market-driven methods for recovering this valuable content from shredder residue. One new technology, developed at Argonne National Laboratory, can separate many types of polymers from the residue with a purity of 95 percent at a yield never before fully attained in the recycling industry. Shredded plastics recovered from retired vehicles can be used to manufacture new vehicle parts and other products.

These novel technologies developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory will soon enable economical recovery of plastics from end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) for making new auto parts, such as spare tire covers, steering column covers and battery trays.

Research continues to scale up the Argonne 2-ton-per-hour pilot plant process to a 20-ton-per hour pilot plant that performs mechanical separation and froth flotation. Further valuable plastics and metal recovery processes are being researched to increase the sustainable use of current plastic materials.

The plastics industry is making progress to increase the use of recycled materials in vehicles as well as increasing end-of-life recycling efforts. Consumers have shown their interest and demand for "greener" products, and recycled plastics are helping to answer that demand.

Traditional recycled materials, such as polypropylene (PP) from used battery casings, are now used in fender liners. So-called GORs (grille opening reinforcements) are fabricated from soda and juice bottles. Interior vehicle components, including fabric and carpeting, often can be made from recycled plastics too. With the price of fossil-fuel-based source materials increasing, these recycling strategies have moved into economical ranges when producing large product runs.

Acknowledgements: The pilot plant and associated R&D was conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, which is managed and operated by University of Chicago, Argonne LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. CE-AC02-06CH11357.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the research participants, their officers, employees, members or affiliates. For more information, see www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/R/560.pdf.

Skepticism in the automotive engineering and purchasing departments is somewhat understandable, historically, in light of a lack of exposure to the benefits of recycled-content materials; it’s often just thought of as waste. Turnover in the automobile and supplier industries in this decade has produced younger, more eco-friendly-thinking groups of employees in these critical areas. The knowledge of recycled materials needs to be readdressed for this less-experienced group, as long-term performance data sometime do not exist for these vanguard solutions, and younger managers may have less materials experience.



 While global mandates emphasize the necessity for the "greening" of the auto industry, they also give impetus to plastics manufacturers. Recycled plastic materials can be more cost-effective to produce with, requiring less processing energy and yielding a lighter, stronger plastic blend that utilizes new technologies with natural, lower-density fibers added.

Once proven, production-ready "green applications" can be cascaded over two to three similar applications for other vehicle lines, providing additional cost savings because the part is engineered only once. This can allow manufacturers to pursue longer-term purchasing agreements on many models and allows raw material suppliers to expand economies of scale by locking in sources of recycled materials. The supply of recycled material is a key component to manufacturing a "greener" product.

Recycled content has expanded beyond using recycled bottles and milk jugs to a more holistic, eco-friendly, factory-based "waste not, want not" approach, which makes financial sense and is more sustainable. The focus is on using all recycled plastics, including those from scrapped automobiles, pre-consumer industrial material and post-consumer non-automotive plastics. The auto industry is recognizing the inherent value of plastics, both pre- and post-consumer, as valuable sources of "green" material that take less energy to create and that can be given a new life, saving additional energy.

Keeping plastic scrap from wasting in landfills is a good thing too. Plastics material conservation and recycling reduces manufacturing scrap and reduces disposal costs from production facilities. Manufacturing plants recognize that diverting plastic scrap can generate a value-added materials stream, saving costs and avoiding expense.

A sustainable life-cycle approach in automobile manufacturing is fostering the use of innovative natural additives in recycled plastics. All plastics created annually for autos, packaging, insulation, pipe, siding, medical supplies, safety gear, fashion fabrics and sealants, to name a few, borrow only about 3 to 4 percent of fossil fuel feedstock for use in their lifetimes. At the end of their first lives, having saved energy by virtue of their light weight, plastics can be recycled, saving more energy, and so on, with little degradation. Plastics eventually re-emerge as a beneficial source of energy. What would have been natural gas burned in a furnace or a car became a plastic with several useful energy-saving lives and still can be a source of fuel in the end.

Automakers’ use of recycled and "green" parts throughout vehicles has been well-documented. Auto interiors contain reclaimed fabrics and recycled plastic bottles, including biopolymers, products and byproducts from soy and corn production. These recycled- and natural-content plastic applications are a growing trend and are being used throughout vehicles in carpeting and in interior trim fillers. Harvesting, sorting and compacting automotive plastic plant trash instead of paying for its disposal also results in fuel savings, with fewer trips to the landfill and more concentrated, "densified" cargo.

The author is a vehicle recycling researcher in plastics and sustainable infrastructure subject matter, collaborating for more than 20 years with Argonne National Laboratory and the American Chemistry Council’s Plastic Division.



Today, recycled-content plastics are being used in vehicles more frequently. The advent of regulations in certain key global market segments now mandates recycled and sustainable material usage. Regional regulatory actions (e.g., end-of-life directives, state landfill avoidance regulations, etc.) require documentable improvement of recycled content ratios and/or volume of plastics diverted from the waste stream year to year or contract to contract.

Despite global marketing of autos, end-of-life recycling mandates must be met by vehicle manufacturers importing into the markets where such legislation exists. On the other hand, available recycled content for making new parts is handled on a local and regional basis.

Tracking actual data on recycled content usage is often difficult. Publicly accessible data are lacking. Vehicle manufacturers contract with full-service suppliers and have them guarantee recycled content. Since this is a competitive matter between auto companies and plastics suppliers, tracking recycled content is usually done on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis as its platform is designed. It is not tracked by plastic type or by automotive manufacturer. Hence, many manufacturers advertise a "green" or "eco-model" of a particular "refreshed" vehicle platform, touting examples of recycled "green" plastics usage in the new platform but provide no aggregate accounting of a particular resin or what a particular company’s volume may be.