Use of Recycled Plastics in Cars is Shifting into Overdrive

Woman smiling while driving

Next time you’re in a car, take a moment to look around. Unless you have a leather interior package, chances are that almost everything you see and touch is made with plastics. The dashboard and its instrument panel, the ceiling fabric, the foam seats and their fabric covering, the seat belts and air bag, the carpeting, head rests, cup holders, side pillars, and so on. Even the window glass uses a type of plastic film to reduce the likelihood of shattering.

And that’s only the interior. Under the hood and around the vehicle exterior, more and more of today’s cars are being made with tough yet lightweight plastics. So much so that today’s vehicles on average contain 50 percent plastics by volume—but only 10 percent by weight.

Furthermore, an increasing number of auto parts and components are being made with recycled plastics—often from the bottles, caps, containers, and other plastic packaging we use every day.

Tough, lightweight plastics can help improve automotive fuel efficiency. And when we recycle our used plastics, we help keep valuable materials out of landfills so they can live another life as car parts or other products.

Here is a list—by no means exhaustive—of how the top six auto sellers in the U.S. are using recycled plastics in their vehicles:

Chrysler uses recycled polyurethane foam plastic in the seat cushions of its Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the wheel liners on the Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler 200 are made with 64 percent recycled plastics. In 2013, nearly 40 percent of the thermoplastics (the most widely used types of plastics in autos) in Chrysler’s European vehicles were recycled plastics.

Ford uses recycled plastics to create upholstery for passenger seat cushions in numerous models. For example, the seat fabric for each Focus is made with approximately 22 plastic water bottles. The company used more than 50 million pounds of post-consumer recycled plastics on the exterior of Ford vehicles made in North America—that equals nearly 18 pounds per vehicle on average. In the U.K., Ford also collects damaged bumpers to make plastic materials for replacement bumpers.

Honda recycles scrap bumpers generated during the manufacturing process. Plastics from bumpers produced at five Honda plants in the U.S. and Canada are reformulated and reused in Honda’s supply chain to make mud and splash guards. 

GM uses air deflectors (used to direct air flow) for its Volt made from plastic caps, bottles, and other recycled materials. The company also uses plastic caps and shipping aids from its Fort Wayne facility to make radiator shrouds (used to protect the radiator) for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups built at that facility.

Nissan uses plastic fibers made from used bottles as the main component in sound insulation layers in dashboards.The automaker also uses plastics recycled from bumpers to create new bumpers, as well as plastics recycled from bottle caps to make new auto parts.

Toyota uses recycled plastics throughout its vehicles. The company recently announced that 20 percent of the plastics used in its vehicles are made with recycled plastics or derived from plant materials.