Carmakers Aim for Circularity


Today’s cars are typically made up of more than 50% plastics.

Look around next time you’re in a car. Pretty much anything you touch is made with plastics (even the windows).

Most people don’t know this, but carmakers have been transitioning to greater use of plastics and plastic composites for decades for two primary reasons: fuel economy and safety.

  • Fuel economy – Plastic car components typically are much lighter than other materials. Lighter weight = more miles per gallon. By law, carmakers must improve the fuel economy of their fleets. Plastics help immensely, which drives down greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Safety – Metal car components can transfer crash energy to the car’s occupants. Plastic components help to better absorb crash energy – the car takes a beating instead of the occupants. That’s why high-end race cars are typically made with plastic composites (a mix of plastic and various fibers). And why more and more passenger cars are, too.

Combine plastic air bags, seat belts, padded dashboards and side panels, fenders, crumple zones, bumpers, gas tanks, and more… Cars are generally considered safer now than ever.

So, these strong yet lightweight components help drive down fuel use and injuries. BUT they’re difficult to recycle, as of now anyway. After we’re done with our cars, most of the plastics winds up in landfills. Not a desirable end-of-life solution.

It’s time to create sustainable solutions.

So, for two days in early 2022, Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) assembled 80+ people focused on crafting solutions.

Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, ORNL is based in Oak Ridge, TN, and bills itself as ‘the world’s premier research institute” that “delivers scientific discoveries and technical breakthroughs needed to realize solutions in energy and national security and provide economic benefit to the nation.” That’s quite a job.

The meeting took place at the Lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, one of ORNL’s multiple R&D facilities. There were academicians, carmakers, recyclers, plastic makers, investors, and more, all focused on one goal: demonstrate automotive circularity for currently unrecyclable plastic materials.

For the uninitiated, “circularity” is often defined as “keeping resources in use for as long as practicable by extracting maximum value from them while in use and recovering and reusing materials at the end of each service life.” In other words, don’t use something once and bury it. Keep those molecules in play by reusing them for as long as possible. Circularity displaces the need for using natural resources and helps keep plastics and other materials out of our ocean and environment.

It’s a simple idea but challenging to do. Once our cars can no longer be used, it’s difficult and expensive to separate the multiple materials for recycling/reuse. Most cars are shredded, resulting in a “fluff” that contains a variety of materials, such as metals, plastics, and concrete, much of which is buried in landfills.

The point of the ORNL meeting was to develop over time a circular path for auto plastics and composites. To keep these materials in play and out of landfills.

“Over time” is key because this can’t happen overnight.

The participants at ORNL brainstormed what’s needed to meet this circularity goal. They identified the obstacles that stand in our way, such as the fact that vehicles today are not designed for end-of-life management.

But more importantly, they identified the opportunities and next steps in a plan of action, focused on demonstrating the viability of recovering valuable plastics for traditional or advanced recycling (learn more about advanced recycling).

Now the hard work begins. This initial meeting was born out of a 2021 agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) between America’s Plastic Makers and ORNL to “identify and develop, and eventually demonstrate, end of life and full circularity solutions for durable plastics through an automotive industry lens.”

Success – demonstrating the viable circularity of automotive plastics – will require an unprecedented collaboration between carmakers, plastic makers, recyclers, ORNL, and others. This will include exploring novel ways to sort used plastics, using new recycling technologies, developing automated disassembly techniques, and more.

This 5-year initiative will help answer the question:

Can we continue creating solutions for our sustainable transportation needs while keeping plastics out of landfills, incinerators, and our environment?

We believe we can. And the answer will help inform similar work in other industries that use plastics and composites, such as aerospace, wind and solar energy, boating, sports equipment, and more.

We’ll issue updates as we progress. Follow us. And wish us success.