Recycling plastics: a win-win scenario for automakers

Family driving in car

Originally published on

As automakers turn to plastics and composites to trim weight and increase the safety of their vehicles, they’re also taking advantage of plastics recycling in the manufacturing process.

Plastics recycling comes with many advantages, among them a reduction in resources needed to produce new plastics and less reliance on landfills. Estimates state that recycling one ton of plastics saves 22 cubic meters of landfill space and conserves 80-90 percent of the energy used when making new items from plastics.

Recycled plastics can be high quality

Experience has shown that auto parts made from recycled plastics can have the same level of quality as those made with original materials. Though recycled plastics often have a different use in their next life, such as when plastics recycled from bumpers are made into mudguards, plastic car parts are sometimes recycled to make the same types of parts. For example, Ford reported that in Europe it is recycling bumpers that have been damaged into new bumpers and other plastic parts.

What are plastics being recycled into?

Recycling of plastics is not limited to what has been retrieved from obsolete automobiles, however. Manufacturers also use recycled plastics from bottles, containers, and other plastic items to make anything from seat cushions to dashboards to bumpers in their new vehicles.

Wheel liners: Chrysler has used recycled plastics in wheel liners for the Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler 200.

Seat cushions: Ford is the first automaker to use REPREVE®, a fiber made with recycled plastic water bottles, for seating fabric, introducing it in several 2013 and 2014 models including its Focus, Fusion, Edge, Mustang, and F-150. Ford needs 22 plastic 16-ounce water bottles to make the fabric for the seats of a Focus, 39 for the Fusion, and between 63 and 110 for the F-150, depending on the model. The company has said that any new seat fabric used in Ford vehicles must contain at least 25 percent recycled material.

Radiator shrouds: GM makes extensive use of recycled plastics. Plastic caps and shipping aids from its facility in Fort Wayne, Indiana, are mixed with other materials to make 25 percent of the radiator shrouds for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks built at the plant.

Air deflectors: Air deflectors on GM’s Chevy Volt are made with 25 percent plastic caps from GM plants, 25 percent post-consumer plastic bottles, and 50 percent other recycled materials.

Car interiors: Jaguar Land Rover recently announced it was going to use recycled plastics in the interiors of some of its luxury vehicles. Land Rover already uses recycled materials throughout its popular Evoque model, equivalent to reusing one thousand 500ml plastic bottles.

Bumpers: Honda, in its 2013 North American Environmental Report, said that scrap bumpers generated in the manufacturing process (post-industrial bumpers or PIBs) at five of its plants in the U.S. and Canada are reformulated to make mud and splash guards. In fiscal year 2013, Honda recycled 620,858 pounds of PIBs.

— Mazda is recycling plastics from used bumpers to manufacture new bumpers for vehicles. The company uses a process to remove paint from old bumpers to create a recycled plastic resin for use in making new vehicle bumpers.

— Nissan stated that recycled plastics have been given new life in the form of bumpers for its electric vehicle LEAF and other new vehicles. The company also said that bumpers are being recycled into materials for other components.

Recycling is good business

What do car manufacturers gain from recycling? GM declared that recycling “makes good business sense,” with about $1 billion generated annually from recycling and reuse. Among the benefits, Ford noted that the use of recycled materials reduces consumer and industrial waste, cuts back on the depletion of natural resources, and reduces energy consumption.

In 2013, the EPA announced a change in the interpretation of its regulations that will allow for the recycling of plastics that are separated from automotive shredder residue (ASR), which could further add to the use of recycled plastics in automotive manufacturing. Plastics account for more than half of ASR. Now, instead of winding up in a landfill, 95 percent of the ASR plastics potentially could be used to produce new products such as automobile components.

The use of plastics and recycled plastics not only makes sense economically by simplifying the cost of making components, but it also helps manufacturers become good corporate citizens when it comes to the environment.

It’s a win-win situation all around.