Worldwide, and in all industries, sustainability is topping agendas and demand for recycled plastics is steadily increasing. Policymakers and legislators are implementing new standards and laws to lower energy consumption, reduce environment-threatening emissions and enforce a more sustainable use of resources. This has profoundly changed global manufacturing and increased the application of circular principles such as remanufacturing, reuse and recycling.
Particularly in the automotive industry, significant strides are being made. Manufacturers are seeking and adopting both new and recycled materials to reduce vehicle weight, increase fuel efficiency and address environmental concerns. The trend for lightweighting has been ongoing for decades, with every manufacturer pursuing innovative ideas and more sustainable ways to use renewable/reusable materials ─ whether aluminum, plastics or carbon fibers.
Back in the 1960s, the average North American car only contained approximately 8kg of plastics and composites, while cars today incorporate roughly 200 kg. This is expected to rise to almost 350 kg by 2020. Consequently, the current demand for lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles is helping to boost the plastic industry’s contributions towards more sustainability in the design, manufacturing and after-life of all transportation forms.
It is commonplace for recycled plastics to be reused to make parts in other areas, like plastics originally found in bumpers which are recycled to produce new exterior parts like mudguards. Additionally, manufacturers are looking beyond their own products to recycled materials originating from other industries. For example, plastic bottles and caps are used for interior applications like components in dashboards, floor panels and speakers.
Progress has been positive, but metals in vehicles are still more likely to be recovered during the end-of-life stream than plastics. A great number of plastics end up in landfills, despite the fact that many are high-value, high-performance polymers. It is estimated that about 100,000 metric tons of thermoplastic polymers (TPO) in bumpers are sent to scrap yards in the U.S. alone each year.
For many years, industry stakeholders have discussed and explored possibilities for recovering more polymer components from end-of-life vehicles. Only a few years ago, the End-Of-Life Vehicle Recycling Project spearheaded by the Plastics Industry Association (PIA) was launched to prevent the direct route to the landfill and reduce the loss of valuable materials and the negative environmental impacts.
Roughly 9 kg of bumper plastics mostly made of TPO are on the outside of a vehicle and can be removed even if damaged. As recycled TPO is suitable for many applications and has the potential to meet or exceed standards, the PIA project is focusing on bumper recycling potential. Over recent years, manufacturers’ efforts have produced impressive results but many experts believe more can still be done.
Automotive Industries (AI) asked Thomas Schmutz, Director Technical Service & Application Development, SONGWON Industrial Group to shed some light on the sustainability progress and breakthroughs in automotive applications.
Driven by global demand for more sustainable solutions, automobile manufacturers are strongly committed to reducing waste and using more recycled materials. In only a few decades, this has dramatically improved the quality of available recycled materials and made it possible to use more recycled plastics in new components. Experience has shown that automotive parts made of recycled plastics can match the same quality levels as new plastic materials.
In the past, most recycling compounds were offered by mid-sized companies but nowadays, resin producers are also offering specialized grades for automotive compounds. Actively seeking to meet sustainability goals, the automotive industry is taking advantage of the benefits recycled plastics offer.
As a result, technology is advancing and more parts are being developed with plastics that improve properties and provide attractive alternatives to traditional metals. Plastics can be incorporated almost anywhere where manufacturers require high performance. Suitable for exterior and interior applications, they facilitate development of more innovative concepts in modular design and reduce production costs.
What are the benefits for environment, health and safety?
Reducing the resources needed to produce new plastics and less reliance on landfills are among plastics recycling’s many advantages. is. Recycled plastics contribute to saving energy, conserving natural resources and lowering pollution levels and GHG emissions.
They also greatly contribute to vehicle safety. Lightweight plastics used in a car’s front area are able to absorb the energy from an impact to create a so-called ‘crumple zone’. In an accident, hollow structures such as panels filled with lightweight plastic foams add strength to a vehicle’s overall structure and increase protection for occupants. In car interiors, less volatile organic content (VOC) provides a healthier interior environment. Furthermore, replacing auto glass with plastic contributes to weight reduction and prevents injuries from shattering glass.
What are the biggest challenges in recycling?
Most plastics used in automotive parts such as dashboards, bumpers and casings etc. are injection molded. Often reinforced plastics, they contain fillers such as glass or carbon fiber and glass beads or plastic blends which have been PP compounded. One of the biggest recycling challenges is the cost-intensive complexity involved in separating mixed plastics or hard-to-remove residues. Another major challenge for producing recycled resins from plastic wastes is the lack of compatibility between varying plastic types.
Obtaining reliable and consistent recycled resins for making automotive compounds is difficult. Odors accompanying recycled resins are not easily removed and limit use in interior applications. To make recycling economically feasible, prices must also be lower than virgin resins. To successfully obtain cost-effective products fit for further usage, manufacturers must consider the costs of removing odors and contaminants, as well as introducing additives for up-cycling. Therefore, in most interior applications virgin resins are preferred due to their surface finish, scratch resistance, color consistency and smell.
What are some of the solutions SONGWON offers?
Sustainability is a high priority at SONGWON. Contributing to plastics recycling is an important issue for us, our customers and the environment and we have developed several strategies for polyolefin automotive compounds.
In recycling, maintaining molecular weight and protecting the polymer during processing are essential. Classic b-blends such as SONGNOX® 11B are ideal for this. Showing a good balance of properties between processing stability, color and long-term thermal stability, it has low initial color and displays low gas fading. It also provides excellent melt flow and color protection during the processing of polyolefins.
Furthermore, preserving recycled plastics’ quality enables their use in interior applications. One of the additives especially developed and certified for interior applications is our stabilizer blend, SONGXTEND® 2721. Meeting the industry’s requirements of improved long-term heat stability, it increases the quality and upgrades the performance of recycled-PP while extending its service life.
Ideal for interior automotive applications such as dashboards and door panels SABO®STAB UV 228 50PP* or SABO®STAB UV 229 50PP* light stabilizers meet the industry’s more stringent requirements for VOC/FOG and total carbon emission.
For TPO automotive exterior and interior parts, SABO®STAB UV 229 50PP or SABO®STAB UV 229 50PP outperform other HALS in terms of color stability, gloss retention and mechanical property retention.
Another high-performance product with excellent compatibility is SONGXTEND® 1103. Offering maximal polymer resin stabilization, it significantly reduces VOC, while optimizing compounding conditions, providing more production flexibility and reducing the need for degassing. Intended for PP compounds in automotive interiors, SONGXTEND® 1103 also contributes to reducing VOC and improves air quality.
SONGWON intends to continue developing new, improved solutions for addressing key industry issues for removing odors and contaminants, and providing high flexibility products to facilitate up-cycling.
* All SABO®STAB products are exclusively produced by SABO S.p.A. SABO® is a registered trademark of Sabo S.p.A