Recycling plastics in automotive components extends the value stream, but at what cost?

The devil is in the material-sorting details

Lightweighting has been at the forefront of automotive design for nearly a decade, especially since the mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards reached 54.5 mpg, something that many automotive R&D engineers say will be nearly impossible. However, as they say, “plastic makes it possible.” And not only possible but recyclable, as well.

Automotive recyclingA Market Watch report just released by SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association (Washington, DC) underscores the need for more suppliers to reduce the weight of vehicle components, and that means transitioning from metal to plastics, including carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRPs) that provide both lighter weight and strength. According to IHS Automotive (Southfield, MI), a research firm that examines critical areas that impact businesses around the world, by 2020 the average car will incorporate an estimated 770 pounds of plastic by weight compared with 440 pounds in 2014, an increase of 75%.

Metal-to-plastic conversions are happening throughout the vehicle from interior and exterior parts to under-the-hood components and fuel systems, as automotive OEMs look for any ounce of weight savings they can squeeze out. And that means more opportunities for polymer technologies. “Already the third largest sector of U.S. manufacturing in dollar value of shipments, plastics in the automotive industry will continue to grow as new materials are utilized in design. CFRP usage in vehicle will increase from 3,400 tons in 2013 to 9,800 tons in 2030,” said the SPI report, Automotive Recycling: Devalued Is Now Revalued , noting that this will also mean new recycling opportunities.

These plastic materials and parts can be recycled, notes the SPI report, “either at the manufacturing facility as part of a post-industrial recycling program that many automobile companies and parts manufacturers have adopted,” and the recovery option that will eventually extend to end-of-life vehicles. “Closed-loop recycling . . . adopted by manufacturers is recognition of the value of the plastics and byproducts in their manufacturing and the opportunity to recycle plastic parts into new components,” the report states.

Obviously, recycling the plastic from vehicles is good news, but participation is key. Sorting the materials will be a factor in the success of automotive recycling. That might mean dismantling vehicles piece by piece to ensure that various types of plastics don’t comingle to maintain the value of the plastic materials. However, the SPI report notes that “end-of-life vehicle (ELV) recycling of these plastics can come via specific parts--the plastic used in bumpers—or in the auto shredder residue (ASR) that is ultimately produced in the crushing and shredding of ELVs. Reusing these plastics from the ASR requires sorting and cleaning, but companies in the European Union are recycling plastics from ASR.”

Currently, there are 39 different types of polymers used to make an automobile today; three polymers account for one-third of the plastics used: Polypropylene (32%); polyurethane (17%) and PVC (16%). There must be a better way to capture these materials that create the most value as recyclate. Yet, the SPI report points out that the cost of cutting-edge “technologies required in a state-of-the-art recycling facility runs into the millions of dollars.”

That leads me to

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