DETROIT—Automotive suppliers can reach out to their members of Congress and research and development groups to engage on sustainability goals as the industry moves toward a circular economy.
"With the infrastructure package … and the goals of the (Joe Biden) presidential administration in this space, there's a lot of interest and opportunity in automotive, I think more than ever," Gina Oliver, senior director of the American Chemistry Council's automotive plastics division, said during Plastics News' recent Plastics in Automotive virtual conference.
ACC has met with more than 30 congressional offices and is "advocating strongly … for R&D and federal funding that is going to help enable sustainable automotive solutions," Oliver said, adding that it is seeing broad support from Congress.
"They're really interested in knowing what we're doing in this space and how they can help us," she said. "They want the low carbon future to be more circular. … They're very eager, on both sides of the aisle … (in) supporting solutions that are sustainable," like nationwide charging infrastructure, pushing the industry toward electric battery manufacturing.
While ACC can help suppliers find direction in where to look for collaborations and R&D funding for circularity efforts, it also encourages suppliers to reach out to other groups and start conversations.
The U.S. Department of Energy's REMADE program has provided about $43 million for U.S. manufacturers to increase the recovery, reuse and remaking of manufacturing of plastics and other materials.
The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation is funding projects for fiber-reinforced plastic composites and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste has committed to invest $1.5 billion toward solutions to help recover and create value from plastic waste.
"There's much work to be done and the automotive industry and its material suppliers will continue to need more solutions to achieve circularity," Oliver said.
A circular economy would present the U.S. and automotive industry with a "significant business opportunity" of about $4.5 trillion by the year 2030—$400 billion to $600 billion of which could go to automotive industry and suppliers, she said.
The entire value chain will need to work together to achieve the aspirational goal of complete circularity, "in which by design no molecule is wasted while continuing to meet performance requirements," Oliver said.
Life cycle analyses (LCA), how most organizations measure a sustainability value, are all peer reviewed and science based, but "not all are created equal," she said. "There's really no agreed-up LCA standard."
"If we're not all comparing apples to apples, it makes it very difficult for an OEM or supplier to see a true sustainability benefit" of a part, component or material, she added.
ACC is working with value chains to come up with "some sort of agreement as an industry on perhaps a methodology or standard for LCAs to "come up with the right solutions for OEMs," Oliver said.
It's also working to help auto makers meet goals of increasing recycled material in vehicles by repurposing plastic waste and recyclables into automotive materials and parts.
BMW is using carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics production scraps for roofs and rear seat structures. Ford is molding engine components with recycled nylon carpet. Renault makes textile from textile scraps, safety belts and plastic bottle recycling.
Another important part of circularity, Oliver said, is a closed-loop recycling processes. Currently more than 95 percent of vehicle battery cases are recycled and sent to manufacturers to create new cases.
Keeping resources in use for as long as possible is also a part of "more comprehensive thinking about supply chain structure, material and product design, as well as end-of-life recovery," she said.
Technologies such as UV stabilizers can extend the lifetime of polyolefin parts.
ACC also is contributing new technologies in areas like incorporating tracing additives into materials to help facilitate automated infrared sorting.
"Proper washing and sorting of recycled plastics into single-polymer groups can be challenging," Oliver said. "Advanced recycling (can) convert plastic waste into feedstock that can be used to create a variety of new … automotive plastic products.
"At least 60 organizations are currently working to scale up" emerging processing methods, such as depolymerization and pyrolysis, she said.
In the U.S., $4.8 billion in cumulative recycling investments have been announced since 2018, Oliver said. Investment in 260 new recycling facilities could create more than 38,000 U.S. jobs.
The entire value chain is rethinking how materials are designed, constructed, used and handled at end of life, she said.
Dow Inc., an ACC member, "has some high-performance resins additives and technologies that minimize issues like crosslinking, high odor and off-color that are commonly associated with recycled plastics," Oliver said.
ExxonMobil Corp.'s Vistamaxx products "are performance polymers that compatibilize (polyethylene and polypropylene) plastics, allowing them to mix in the melt and removing the need for costly and time-consuming separation," she added.
In addition to recycled-content materials, the industry is also working to make plastic and polymer composites from renewable feedstock.
"By their nature, plastic and polymer composites offer OEMs and parts suppliers tremendous flexibility to increase the efficiency of their manufacturing processes, which is a key aspect of circularity," Oliver said. "With plastics, manufacturers have a wide range of available options for reducing waste and improving efficiency through approaches such as part integration and the use of regrind and reprocessing of defective parts.
"Effectively removing plastic and polymer composites at the end of life from vehicles, and recycling or reusing them will require not just excellent technology development, but also close coordination" by the automotive and recycling value chains, she added.