C is for Circularity

How Automotive Plastics Can Help Further Reduce Waste and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This is the fourth article in the Driving Towards Sustainability series about the critical role plastics play as the U.S. automotive sector continues improving sustainability and moves towards a more circular economy. Check out the third article in our series: C is for Connectivity.

Waste. There’s growing recognition that continually making and discarding products is not sustainable.

That includes our cars.

So automakers are creating new ways to deliver stylish, fuel-efficient cars while creating less waste. Their path? Circularity.

Circularity means using plastics (or any resource) more efficiently by keeping them in use for as long as possible and then reusing them to make new products. Simple: Use wisely and then when possible reuse instead of discard. This not only reduces waste – it also reduces the need to extract virgin raw materials.

circular economy could help all of us reduce our environmental footprint while getting more value out of our cars and trucks. According to a recent report, circularity presents a potential $4.5 trillion business opportunity by 2030 – and roughly $400-$600 billion could go to automotive companies and their suppliers, helping fuel more innovations to make our driving experience even more sustainable.

That’s why America’s Plastic Makers® are working with automakers to enable new ways to achieve more circularity for the plastic components in our cars. Automakers are increasingly focused on making it easier to disassemble end-of-life (EOL) vehicles, recovering more EOL material and using more recycled material in their new cars.

For example: 50 of the 280 kilograms of plastics used in a Renault Espace come from recycled materials, including EOL plastics.

Driving Circularity with Plastics

Plastics can play a significant role in improving the circularity of our cars in the following areas:

  • Collection and Dismantling. Automakers are redesigning their vehicles to make it easier and more economical to dissemble them and recycle the parts, such as bumpers. Plastic makers and automakers are working together to encourage nationwide collection of dismantled vehicle components and to help create markets for the EOL plastic, which will help keep plastic out of landfills.

  • Recovery and Sorting. Once the components are dismantled, plastics must be sorted and separated to create streams of materials that can be economically repurposed. Plastic makers are pursuing high-speed techniques to identify grades of plastics that can be sold into the recycling market, as well as recycling technologies that can maximize the value of EOL plastics, such as advanced technologies that break down plastics into multiple valuable materials for reuse.
  • Remanufacturing. Using the sorted EOL plastics to make new car parts reduces the need for virgin plastic, which decreases energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Multiple carmakers are using recycled plastics throughout their vehicles, such as in headlamps, bumpers, lift gates, seat cushions and upholstery, insulation and critical engine components.

  • Lifecycle Assessment (lighter weight = lower greenhouse gas emissions). Life cycle assessments (LCA) help provide automakers with a clearer understanding of the cradle-to-grave environmental footprint of automotive materials and components. It’s not really surprising that lightweight plastic components typically help improve fuel-economy and reduce the carbon footprint of our cars and trucks. For example, one notable LCA found: “If plastic components in passenger vehicles produced in North America… were replaced with alternative materials, the vehicles would require an additional [89 million gallons] of gasoline and diesel to operate over their lifetime.”
  • Powering Flexibility. Today’s ridesharing cars typically are repurposed passenger vehicles. Future shared vehicles will evolve to meet the needs of different types of passengers, including the elderly, families with young children, and people with disabilities.Plastic makers and automakers are working to establish clear, standardized and rapid methods to conduct LCAs on auto components, which will help make informed decisions that can reduce our environmental impact.

As an element of the ACCESS Framework, circularity can help extend the life of plastics to further reduce waste and drive down greenhouse gas emissions from our cars and trucks. Plastic makers are working to improve circularity throughout the automotive plastics supply chain to help end plastic waste.

Continue to visit America’s Plastic Makers: Making Sustainable ChangeSM to learn more about the steps companies are taking to help end plastic waste, build a circular economy for plastics and create a more sustainable future.