Chrysler Corp. could be opening a phenomenal new market for plastics with its proposed all-plastic-body production car.
On the other hand, it could be opening a Pandora's box for the plastics industry.
The automaker won a lot of attention at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit when it rolled out two all-plastic concept cars.
This follows on the heels of Chrysler's September introduction of the Composite Concept Vehicle, or CCV. All three use glass-reinforced PET bodies to support their exterior frames — a real engineering breakthrough.
Chrysler has been careful to point out that the plastic bodies are recyclable, which certainly is true. But when you're talking about replacing steel, which is easy to recycle, with PET — that's almost surely a step backward for recycling.
Recyclers like steel. It's heavy, and don't forget, recyclers get paid by the pound. It's also easy to separate magnetically, and has plenty of potential buyers — a large infrastructure of successful steel mini-mills.
PET has a good recycling record too, but that's primarily because all plastic soft drink bottles are PET. There's a large, government-supported framework to collect PET bottles. The same is not true of PET automotive panels.
Chrysler — and the plastics industry — nevertheless can make a strong case for PET panels.
If you consider the two materials from a purely environmental perspective, plastic more than makes up for its recycling problems thanks to its light weight, which will improve fuel efficiency. In addition, the plastic cars can use color that is molded in, saving tons of volatile organic compound emissions from expensive paint shops.
Provided they are durable enough for the application, the plastic panels are a step in the right environmental direction. But auto recyclers and the steel industry aren't likely to look at the big picture.
They'll focus on the reduced recyclability of the plastic panels. The issue is likely to generate a lot of attention.
What can Chrysler and the plastics industry do to prepare for the inevitable attacks?
They should start by letting the public know the full story of the plastic panels. Surely the benefits are considerable, if they convince a Big Three automaker to abandon decades of experience and investment in steel in favor of plastics.
In addition, Chrysler needs to be very careful about how it promotes the panels.
There's a big difference between calling something recyclable and actually setting up the infrastructure and recycling it. Chrysler needs to make sure that recyclers can handle the new material. That includes talking to recyclers about end markets for the panels.
And if they haven't already, officials at Chrysler should explore the feasibility of using recycled-content materials in both the PET and the glass fibers that are used to manufacture the body panels.