Autonomous driving, connected vehicles, electrification, car sharing – if the predictions are correct, mobility in the future will look much different from mobility today, as will car interiors. Plastic materials, however, remain essential.
“Some time, in the not so distant future the interior will look completely different and the use case will be completely different, but: it will still all be plastic,” said Yanfeng Automotive Interior Systems Co. Ltd.s Jeff Stout.
So what kind of plastics will these be? As the transition towards a more circular and sustainable economy for plastics gains momentum, it is not yet clear how this will take shape in the automotive industry.
The principles of circularity, on which the European Green Deal is based, call for focusing on reducing demand for non-renewable, finite raw materials by recovering materials at the end of their useful life, reusing these in new products, and designing products for disassembly and repairability.
Today, however, that is not yet a priority. In the past, the focus in the automotive has been on emission levels and weight. Material reclamation at the end of life is still in its infancy.
“With interiors, it is currently not financially viable to strip out the polymers used from the car,” Stout, executive director global Innovation at Yanfeng, said.
“There are no regulations to speak of that are driving this yet. At the moment, automotive shredder residue goes to a landfill. We have no reclamation stream of end-of-life material coming back to our plants in Germany.”
And while there is no legislative basis for practicing design for disassembly, this is something the company takes into account, where it makes sense. For example, in order to reprocess its scrap and defective parts – what Stout refers to as ‘micro-circularity’ - parts must designed to be separated. “We develop processes to make that possible, such as mono-material solutions – where it makes financial sense,” he said. Companies like Yanfeng have enough tools in the toolbox to deliver these solutions, but as long as they are not mandatory, these are not going to be the default.
However, a development that Yanfeng is looking very seriously at is chemical recycling. Other than the post-industrial recycling of its own scrap, the recycled materials derived through mechanical recycling tend not to offer the purity or quality required to meet the quality customers demand. Chemical recycling, where resins are depolymerized back into monomers, which serve as the building blocks for new virgin-like polymers, offers potential. Currently, the problem is that commercial scale processes are available for advanced recycling of polystyrene and PET, neither of which are used on a large scale in the automotive interior market.
“We have to get to a point where we can chemically reprocess the polyolefins - with PP at the very top, as it is by far the most commonly used material in car interiors - and standard amorphous plastics ABS, PC/ABS, PC, as these four material types make up the vast majority of all the plastic used in the automotive industry,” Stout said.
The company is currently in the process of evaluating the different processes and companies to see where it makes sense to be the partner or to leverage: “To walk along side and work with those folks to bring that technology to a marketable status.”
A second development envisaged by Stout is even more forward looking. In a future where mobility as a service has a larger market penetration and the players in that space could have a fleet of say tens of thousands of cars, a central location with a system and a warehouse is created where end of life reclamation suddenly becomes feasible.
“It could be a huge enabler for circularity. Individual owners go to a thousand different junkyards all over the country, which makes it much more challenging to have a unified system of reclamation,” he noted.