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Carmakers want to be green, but need consistent material performance

April 30, 2014

ORLANDO, FLA. — Using more recycled or bio-based plastics in cars isn’t as easy as just wanting to be greener, according to one person paid to think about such things at one of the world’s largest automobile makers.

Many, many factors go into determining what material will be used to make each part, said Eric Connell a senior engineer at Toyota Technical Center USA Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“Using these recycled and bio-based materials is only going to make sense where it is the best option,” said Connell during a presentation at the Global Plastics Environmental Conference. “And that could be cost. It could be mass. It could be performance.”

Connell also is a board member for the Plastics Environmental Division of the Society of Plastics Engineers that organized the two-day conference in Orlando.

“We can’t use recycled where aluminum will be better. We can’t use composite where steel will be better,” he said, citing examples.

But despite the challenges that the auto industry poses in terms of the use of recycled or bio-based plastic, the engineer said there’s a lot of momentum pushing their higher adoption as time goes on.

“The message is that you shouldn’t give up. Don’t give up. Things aren’t as bad as they seem,” he said. “It’s not all bad.”

“There’s a lot of good. There’s a lot of customer and consumer awareness,” he said, as recycling continues to receive more and more national attention.

“Quality levels are at an all-time high. The recession did a really interesting thing for the recycling industry. It made quality improvements because people said, ‘OK, we don’t have time for poor quality. We have to have really good quality.’ That drove the price up a little bit. But we are seeing quality levels for these materials at an all-time high.”

“Toyota,” Connell said, “is continually increasing the use of recycled and bio-based materials in our vehicles.”

The 2014 CT 200h hybrid from Toyota’s Lexus brand uses 30 percent plant-based PET materials for floor mats and trim. The company notes it is designed to be 90 percent recyclable and easy to be dismantled.

Challenges to using recycled and bio-based plastics in automotive applications include quality, consistency, durability, mass, color, odor and the logistics of providing the materials for locations around the world.

Supplying recycled-content parts to the automotive industry can be challenging because of the need for consistency with the resin. That can be especially true for post-consumer plastics that can have odor issues based on their previous use.

Recycled plastic that smells like plastic is good, Connell said. Recycled plastic that smells like soap, or peanut butter or cat urine, not so much.

“What I need is a consistent source and a consistent quality. It doesn’t mean necessarily I need to know whose house the yogurt cup came from. But It does mean I need to know month-to-month, lot-to-lot, that I’m going to have a consistent supply," he said.