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Plastics Continue to Make Cars Safer for People and the Environment

A director of business and product development for a Tier 1 automotive supplier specializing in injection molding reflects on industry’s technological breakthroughs, many of which were made possible by plastics.

February 23, 2021

4 Min Read
car on country road
Image: nblxer/Adobe Stock

Christopher Gardner

Before he was confirmed as Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg called for millions of new electric vehicles on our roads to meet the challenges of climate change. It is a goal that would not be possible without plastics. Over the years, I have had the privilege to work with manufacturers across multiple industries and it cannot be overstated how impactful plastics have become.

Perhaps no other material is as versatile. It is a designer’s dream to be able to create something with such precision, repeatability, and economy. What other material can be as flexible as paper, as hard as steel, or as soft as a blanket? It comes in virtually any color or texture and can be molded in ways to form a single part that can replace a dozen others and perform the same function — only better. It protects us from moving parts, electricity, germs, oxidation, heat, cold, and the list goes on. 

As a director of business and product development for a Tier 1 automotive supplier specializing in injection molding, I have seen first-hand how components — and materials themselves — have evolved. We showcased parts previously made from metal that were sophisticated, high-performing, attractive, and lightweight. In one instance, a 40-pound cast iron clutch pedal had been re-engineered in plastic. The new, composite assembly was equally effective, weighing in at about two pounds.

Each year, innovative plastic parts are introduced to effectively drive down vehicle weights. Fuel efficiency can increase by up to 8% for every 10% in weight reduction. Not surprisingly, cars today comprise approximately 50% plastics by volume, yet the material contributes only 10% of the weight. Equally important, well-designed parts may reduce assembly times, repairs, and replacement requirements, further contributing to the need for fewer resources. 

Modern cars are amazingly efficient compared with only a few decades ago. However, they are also more luxurious, often at the expense of adding more weight. Electric mirrors, power seats, power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, and sunroofs are all driven by individual motors and complex wiring harnesses weighing hundreds of pounds. Modern exhaust systems reduce harmful chemicals that would otherwise be released in the air as pollutants — but they are heavy. Air bags have reduced road fatalities by 60% over the last 20 years and we feel safer at high speeds in a plastic/metal cabin designed with strategic crumple zones. Which features are you willing to give up? 

Today, many cars travel reliably for hundreds of thousands of miles. In the 1950s, most “wear items” were warrantied for just 4,000 miles. Car tires would blow out between five and 10,000 miles. On average, you could expect to travel about 12 miles per gallon. Rust was a constant enemy. Brakes and shocks needed replacement at about 5,000 miles. Wheel bearings, spark plugs, timing, batteries, the list goes on. We have seen incredible progress.

Still, in an age of heightened sustainability consciousness, plastic’s contribution can be misunderstood. In Canada, for example, the federal government seeks to ban certain single-use plastics by the end of 2021. The government chose an odd and potentially perilous regulatory approach. Specifically, they sought to add these items to CEPA Schedule 1 — a list of toxic substances originally designed to manage chemicals, not consumer products. The result is a confusing message to consumers: Plastics, by definition, are “toxic” — a slippery slope, indeed.

As businesses and governments acknowledge that supporting a 10-billion-person population just around the corner is not sustainable, we debate how to pivot from a linear (disposable) society to a circular (reusable) economy. Arbitrary name-calling — defining all plastics as “toxic” — scapegoats an industry that has delivered — and continues to deliver — so much good. What we really need is greater emphasis on recycling infrastructure and reuse and recovery programs to provide a clean, safe, and balanced environment. 

As we discuss our ideas and thoughts about how to share the planet more responsibly, let’s get it right. By embracing new technologies, innovation, and high-performing materials and processes, I am confident we will continue to see the plastics industry make significant contributions, as it always has.


About the author

Chris Gardner

Christopher Gardner is an industrial designer and business development executive. E-mail him at [email protected]. His website is www.cpgardner.com.


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