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New report shines a light on recycling automotive plastics

 It was about three years ago that Kendra Martin first attended an automotive event as an employee of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.

And at that gathering she got the sense that recycled plastic was still being viewed as cheap.

But in the years that have followed, the senior director of industry affairs at SPI has seen a huge change in the perception of using recycled-content plastic parts.

“That seems, for the most part, to be gone. That doesn’t seem to be the attitude anymore,” she said at SPI’s inaugural Re|focus Recycling Summit & Expo in Orlando. “That’s a pretty quick shift.”

Automotive plastic recycling has become such an important emerging issue for SPI that the trade group is out with a brand new report highlighting the opportunities and challenges that face that segment of the industry.

End-of-life vehicle recycling, for years, has essentially focused on metal recycling. For decades really. And why not? The metal recycling industry has essentially perfected ways to capture the overwhelming majority of metal in an automobile. It’s one of the great success stories in recycling.

But with plastic components becoming more and more a part, no pun intend, of new vehicles, SPI wants to put a greater emphasis on examining the opportunities to recycle those materials instead of seeing them essentially head to the landfill.

SPI’s latest Plastics Market Watch report shines a light on automotive recycling, examining what’s going on in the business from both an end-of-life perspective as well as recycled content going into new automobiles, Martin said.

“We just looked at here’s what we see going on. The big autos are committed to a bunch of different areas of introducing recycled content and using that in their vehicles. And also the end of life issues,” she said.

The report also hits on zero-waste efforts by manufacturers that necessitate a second life for their scrap.

“Everything that’s going on in automotive. It’s really a thought piece about laying out ideas of where the industry could be going and how to get around some of the challenges,” Martin said.

Jim JohnsonHolmes

“I was surprised to see how many brand owners have made commitments to using recycled content,” said Kim Holmes, senior director of recycling and diversion at SPI. A lot of those commitments use non-automotive sources of recycled resin, such as PET bottles, she pointed out.

“But they are least creating a supply chain that is engaging recyclers,” Holmes said.

The idea of the report is to not only reach SPI members with a message to promote automobile plastics recycling, “but also key partners and customers in the plastics life cycle, including auto manufacturers and designers, scrap recyclers and policymakers,” the report states.

“It is critical that stakeholders outside of the plastics industry recognize the value of the material not only in the automotive manufacturing process, but also in terms of post-industrial and post-consumer recycled material that can be used in products, both in auto applications as well as other industries,” the report continues.

Plastics now make up about 50 percent of the volume of materials in a new vehicle. But they still only account for about 10 percent of the weight, the report states.

“I think the takeaway is it’s a priority for the industry on three fronts,” Holmes said about plastics recycling. “Using recycled content. Zero waste manufacturing, which seems to be a priority for everybody. And look at, ‘Are there opportunities to recover plastics?’ Because they are only going to increase.”

SPI reports that 39 different types of plastics are used in vehicles. A new project by the trade group this year aims to examine the potential to begin whole part recovery of certain plastic vehicle components, before automotive shredding, at the end of a vehicle’s life. This initial work will center on parts made from polypropylene and thermoplastic polyolefins.

With 12 million to 15 million vehicles being scrapped each year in the United States, there is an opportunity to make a difference in plastics recycling by tackling that market.

And that opportunity is only expected to grow in the years ahead. Consulting firm IHS Inc. estimates that the amount of plastic in a typical car will grow to 770 pounds by 2020, the report states. That’s up from 440 pounds in 2014.

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