Sustainability is a vital strategic goal for all industries as regulations, consumer demands and a sense of responsibility all increase. The automotive industry has made significant strides in addressing sustainability concerns, and recapturing materials from end-of-life vehicles can bring the entire industry one step closer to a future with full, infinite circularity.

Meanwhile, the plastics industry is supporting automakers with innovative material solutions created and developed through collaboration and minimizing manufacturers’ impact on the planet.

Whether born out of corporate responsibility or outside pressure, automakers are seeking novel solutions to the environmental goals they need to meet. Working with sometimes moving targets, and often with different definitions of sustainability, their needs vary, meaning suppliers need to be flexible, share their same values and possess the know-how to meet and exceed manufacturers’ needs.

The plastics sector has been a trusted partner to OEMs and tier suppliers in automotive for decades, offering critical materials for vehicle interiors and exteriors, as well as supporting the growth of electric vehicles in various ways including components for electric-vehicle batteries. With materials such as engineered plastics with recycled content and bio-based chemistries for plastics and latex binders, plastics manufacturers are increasingly working to help OEMs achieve their sustainability objectives with solutions that do not compromise performance while preserving resources and reducing carbon footprints.

Automotive Circularity

With the goal of full circularity, the entire value chain is working toward a future where every vehicle can be taken apart at the end of its life, processed and brought back into production as a new vehicle, with no need for additional all-prime inputs: a door comes back as a door, a dashboard is a dashboard once more, etc. 

But realistically, a vehicle’s lifetime is 10 to 15 years, meaning there is still a way to go before closing the loop, so OEMs must look outside of their industries to source recycled plastics and bridge that gap to lower emissions now.

A focus on identifying sources of recycled feedstock broadly can help prevent material value loss and minimize emissions, especially when materials retain their quality for multiple lifecycles. Remanufacturing can reduce emissions during production and increase asset value. The plastics industry is developing technologies and investing in closed-loop recycling technologies that maintain the same quality standards as virgin materials.

Materials Without Compromise

Expanding recycling channels throughout the automotive supply chain is crucial, and companies should not limit themselves to a single method. The plastics industry has been on a sustainability journey for years and, in partnership with the automotive industry, has identified multiple routes to lowering the CO2 footprint of its products. Along with offering a robust portfolio of resins containing recycled materials, some plastics manufacturers now offer bio-attributed materials which provide enhanced performance and a lower CO2 footprint comparable to their all-prime counterparts.

Such bio-attributed materials can be made in accordance with the mass balance process, where fossil-based polymers are combined with renewable raw materials during polymerization. This means the finished product is chemically identical to its all-prime counterpart and can be used with existing equipment under the same process conditions.

Value Chain Partnerships

As the push for sustainability continues, businesses in the automotive industry are recognizing the importance of adopting a circular approach to their operations. This means working together with value-chain partners in a seamless manner, from design to decommission, to create a closed-loop system that minimizes waste and maximizes resource efficiency.

Through partnership and collaboration, automotive companies can expand recycling channels to include dissolution, chemical recycling and feedstock cracking and close the loop on end-of-life materials. This way, they are providing sustainable solutions for their products without compromising on quality. The circular future of automotive businesses requires a shared vision and a commitment to work together toward a more sustainable and resilient future.

Mobility That Keeps on Going

Composing a more comprehensive automotive sustainability strategy involves sustainable material choices, streamlined production processes and responsible end-of-life treatment utilizing circular systems.

There is no easy path toward achieving sustainability targets, as it requires long-term commitment and collaboration from all stakeholders in the value chain. Global alignment is key, with sustainability goals aligned with industrywide guiding principles and enforced throughout the supply chain, so that as regulations shift, all players can adapt to changing requirements.

Creating a sustainable future doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning vehicles and plastics, but rather finding efficient ways to maximize the usage of existing resources and regenerating them within a circular economy. It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but rather reusing it.

John Punches (pictured, above left) is commercial sales director, plastics-North America, at Trinseo.

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John Punches