It should come as no surprise that carmakers are working to reduce their carbon footprint. What will surprise you is the manner in which they’re doing it: Plastic detergent bottles, old milk carton and faded blue jeans are just some of ingredients that are already going into the production of your car today. The recycling of older materials will only increase.
Whereas the use of ‘green’ materials used to mean the sourcing of organic fibers and materials, automakers now realize the some recycled materials are actually stronger and more efficient than organics.
General Motors’s Lora Herron, the engineer who oversees the company’s recycled and bio materials efforts, observed how the shift has taken place.
“Some of these recycled (scrap) materials are actually ‘greener’ than the bio-materials (which are made from plants and other organic substances),” Herron said. “And with some of the bio materials, we add compounds we’ve created from the recycled materials to create a hybrid material, in order to stand up to our stringent requirements. We try to incorporate the recycled content whenever we can, if it is technologically and economically feasible.”
In many cases, those requirements have to do with the ability withstand high temperatures, whether in the engine compartment or in the interior on a hot day.
“Heat and moisture are definitely issues with bio materials,” said Herron. “We don’t want interior components melting or degrading if you spill hot coffee on them.”
That’s where the recyclable materials come in, because they are typically sturdier than the bio materials.
One example of GM’s efforts in this arena is the use of recycled plastic water bottles to create the register vanes in the Cadillac SRX. In another instance, GM took packaging cardboard that had been used to ship materials to its stamping plant in Marion, Indiana – and turned it into an acoustic backing that goes underneath the headliner in the 2010 Buick Lacrosse.
And old carpet fibers have been recycled and used to make parts like door-handle brackets and engine-fan shrouds.
“There are two types of carpeting we use,” said Herron. “There’s ‘post-industrial,’ which is the scrap that’s left over at a fiber mill after they change the dye lots. But we’ve also used ‘post-consumer’ carpet – carpets that have been discarded by individuals. In the latter case, our suppliers clean and strip off the backing, melt down the nylon and re-formulate it, using some additives to make it more durable.”
The old detergent bottles, meanwhile, have been recycled for use in various GM vehicles “to create brackets and the baffles that are hidden under sheet metal, or used as a support for exterior parts,” she said. And the old blue jeans were shredded, along with other cotton items like T-shirts, then recycled and used to make the dash mats that are attached to the floor pan, underneath the carpet, she added.
Meanwhile, one of Ford’s most interesting and visually-appealing recycling efforts was the use of recycled plastic soda bottles and yarn to make the plush, suede-looking seat fabrics in the 2010 Ford Taurus SHO and Lincoln MKZ. “You would never guess that it was made from those kinds of recycled materials,” said Ford’s Debbie Mielewski, technical leader of plastics research. “It feels so lush; like a micro-suede.
“And we’re using up to 100% recycled polypropylene to make wheel-arch liners and battery trays on the Focus,” explained Mielewski. And last year, Ford created a lower bumper fascia “using 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. The base resin comes from recycled battery casings and plastic bottles.”
Ford has also recycled laundry-detergent bottles and milk cartons into materials that were used to produce exterior and under-the hood components.
“But one nut we haven’t cracked yet is using the recycled milk cartons for use in interior components, because those cartons do retain that milk odor,” said Mielewski. “And of course, you don’t want to make interior parts that smell like sour milk. But we think as we keep developing that technology, that’s something we’ll be able to do.”
GM’s Herron estimates that 5 to 10 percent of the plastics currently used in GM vehicles are made of recycled materials – a number that’s considerably higher than it was five years ago, she said. Ford said last year that in 2008 its recycling efforts saved between $4-5 million and that it recycled 25-30 million pounds of plastic that otherwise would have ended up in landfills.
Around 9 percent of all of the recycled milk cartons, laundry detergent bottles and other materials made out of high-density polyethylene in the U.S. ended up auto parts in 2008, according to David Cornell, the technical director for the Association of Post-consumer Plastics Recyclers. That compares to less than one percent 10 years ago, he said.