This Is Plastics: Plastics Help Automakers Build a More Sustainable Future


Plastics Help Automakers Build a More Sustainable Future

Plastics make modern cars possible and are vital to building the more sustainable cars of the future.


Learn how plastics make modern cars possible—and the role this versatile material has in building the cars of the future.

This week kicks off the 114th Annual Chicago Auto Show, the largest auto show in North America that convenes industry stakeholders and consumers alike on all things cars. As the global community builds towards a greener future and a more circular economy, the automotive industry is a critical part of that conversation. In fact, automakers and other innovators are using both virgin and recycled plastics to improve vehicle performance, reduce waste, and increase automotive products’ circularity.

Plastics make today’s cars safe and sustainable

Modern cars on the road couldn’t exist without plastics—in fact, plastic parts account for about 50% of modern autos but only 10% of the total weight. Over 40 types of plastic polymers are commonly used to manufacture cars, significantly reducing their overall weight. Lighter cars decrease emissions through greater fuel efficiency: for every 10% in weight reduction, there’s a 5-7% increase in fuel efficiency.

Plastics help keep vehicle passengers safe, too. From polyester fiber seatbelts to nylon fabric airbags and splinter-proof protective coatings for automotive glass, many modern automotive safety components rely on plastic. Further, fiber-reinforced polymer crumple zones—or the areas that absorb impact during a collision—absorb four times the impact as steel, reducing passenger injuries.

The safety and sustainability of our cars rely on plastics, and ongoing research has proven promising for future upgrades by replacing traditional alternatives with plastic. Indeed, the Department of Energy predicts that as the trend of carbon fiber-reinforced plastics replacing alternative car part materials grows, vehicles’ weight will be further reduced by 50%, improving fuel efficiency by an additional 35%.  

Automakers are using plastics to build the cars of tomorrow

In addition to plastics’ many benefits for automotive products, the material is also enabling the development of more accessible, modern  electric vehicles (EVs). As original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the primary producers of car parts, design the cars of the future with a focus on sustainability and high performance, plastics’ role will only increase. Automakers are increasingly implementing plans to grow EV sales, creating a need for innovative technology that can bridge the gap between EV utilization goals and actual consumer take-up.

A January 2022 report from Reports and Data, a markets insights and analysis firm, predicts that as EV technology advances, polymer automotive applications will increase due to their impressive technical capacity. Polymers are already critical to EVs for everything from insulation and sensor shields to battery separators and coatings to charging infrastructure. And the importance of plastics in this space is only set to increase. The report also notes that as manufacturers seek to expand high-performance EVs, polymers can help reduce in-motion noise and vibration and protect battery packs, bettering riders’ experiences and improving EVs’ technical performance.

Polymer technology is advancing, too. Chemical engineers at MIT have developed a novel polymerization process to produce a new material, which they call 2DPA-1, that is stronger than steel, as lightweight as other forms of plastic, and easily manufactured at the commercial scale. The researchers believe 2DPA-1—also four to six times stronger than bulletproof glass—can be used as a protective coating for metal car parts, limiting corrosion and damage from the elements and other usage strain. This can help extend the product life of car parts, reducing unnecessary waste and allowing consumers to keep their vehicles for longer periods of time. Through these benefits, and countless others, plastics play a critical role building vehicles for a greener future.

Plastics facilitate economic circularity in the automotive industry

Auto manufacturers are also taking strides to ensure the industry fits into global goals to improve circularity. For example, automaker Audi collaborated with the German Karlsruhe Institute of Technology on a pilot project aimed at applying advanced recovery processes to automotive manufacturing. The project will recover plastic waste from car manufacturing and use it as fuel to create new car parts. Separately, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and recycling company Ultra-Poly Corp. have successfully developed and tested a process to recycle plastic car bumpers into near-virgin quality material, which is ideal for countless end-product uses and capable of diverting one million pounds of plastic from landfills each year. These innovations ensure that industry leverages automotive plastics for all they’re worth, maximizing its lifecycle and value.

In addition to recovering and recycling more car parts, automakers are also incorporating more recycled parts into new car models. Ford is using recycled nylon fishing nets to produce harness clips for wiring in its Bronco Sport midsize SUV model. Last month, Jeep announced an environmentally friendly specification for its Renegade and Compass models, which make “extensive use” of recycled plastic on headliners, floor mats, and seats. Seats in Audi’s fourth generation A3 vehicle are made from 89% recycled PET bottles, and the model also incorporates recycled plastics into carpet and floor mats. These are just a few examples of industry-wide efforts to increase sustainability—all while diverting plastic waste from landfills and the ocean and creating a circular economy.

A truly circular economy requires buy-in from all stakeholders in the value chain. Plastics are already key to the cars of today and the cars of tomorrow. Automakers’ latest innovations represent the creative, adaptive solutions that are needed to improve plastics’ circularity while continuing to produce high-quality, sustainable products that meet consumer transportation needs. To complement these efforts, industry and government alike must continue to invest into advanced recycling programs to process complex plastic parts, ensuring a sustainable future. Plastics will continue to be key to the innovative auto designs of the future, providing high-performance, low-emissions, sustainable transportation options for consumers around the globe.

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