classic car on display

Automakers Focus on Circularity

Can Industry-Government Collaboration Keep Auto Plastics Out of Landfills?

Did you know that today’s cars are typically made up of more than 50% plastics?

Look around when you’re in a car. Almost anything you touch is made with plastics (even the windows).

Most people are not aware of this, but automakers have been transitioning to greater use of plastics and plastic composites for decades for two primary reasons: fuel economy and safety.

  • Fuel economy – Plastic auto components typically are much lighter than other materials. Lighter weight = more miles per gallon. By law, automakers are required to improve the fuel economy of their fleets. Plastics help considerably, which drives down greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Safety – Metal auto components can transfer crash energy to the car’s occupants. Plastic components help to better absorb crash energy – the car takes a beating instead of the occupants. That’s why high-end race cars are typically made with plastic composites (a mix of plastic and various fibers). And why more and more passenger cars are, too.

Combine plastic air bags, seat belts, padded dashboards and side panels, fenders, crumple zones, bumpers, gas tanks, and more… Our cars are widely considered safer now than ever.

So, these strong yet lightweight components help drive down fuel use and injuries. BUT they’re not easy to recycle, as of now anyway. After we’re done with our cars, most of the plastics winds up in landfills. Not a desirable end-of-life solution.

It’s time to create sustainable solutions.

So… for two days in early 2022, Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) assembled 80+ people focused on crafting solutions.

Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, ORNL is based in Oak Ridge, TN. ORNL bills itself as ‘the world’s premier research institute” that “delivers scientific discoveries and technical breakthroughs needed to realize solutions in energy and national security and provide economic benefit to the nation.” That’s quite a job.

The meeting took place at the Lab’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, one of ORNL’s many R&D facilities. There were academicians, automakers, recyclers, plastic makers, investors, and others, all focused on one goal: demonstrating automotive circularity for currently unrecyclable plastic materials.

For the uninitiated, “circularity” is often defined as “keeping resources in use for as long as practicable by extracting maximum value from them while in use and recovering and reusing materials at the end of each service life.” In other words, don’t use something once and bury it. Keep those molecules in play by reusing them for as long as possible. Circularity displaces the need for using natural resources and helps keep plastics and other materials out of our ocean and environment.

It’s a simple idea but challenging to do. Once our cars can no longer be used, it’s difficult and expensive to separate the multiple materials for recycling/reuse. Most cars are shredded, resulting in a “fluff” that contains multiple materials, such as metals, plastics, and concrete, much of which is buried in landfills.

The point of the ORNL meeting was to develop over time a circular path for auto plastics and composites. To keep these materials in play and out of landfills.

“Over time” is key because this can’t happen overnight.

The participants at ORNL brainstormed what’s needed to meet this circularity goal. They identified the obstacles that stand in our way, such as the reality that vehicles today are not designed for end-of-life management.

More importantly, they identified the opportunities and next steps in a plan of action, focused on demonstrating the viability of recovering valuable plastics for traditional or advanced recycling (learn more about advanced recycling).

Now the challenging work begins. This initial meeting was born out of a 2021 agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) between America’s Plastic Makers and ORNL to “identify and develop, and eventually demonstrate, end of life and full circularity solutions for durable plastics through an automotive industry lens.”

Success – demonstrating the workable circularity of automotive plastics – will require an unprecedented collaboration between automakers, plastic makers, recyclers, ORNL, and others. This will include exploring fresh ways to sort used plastics, developing automated disassembly techniques, deploying new recycling technologies, and more.

This 5-year initiative will help answer the question:

Can we continue creating solutions for our sustainable transportation needs while keeping plastics out of landfills, incinerators, and our environment?

We believe we can. And the answer will help advise similar work in other industries that use plastics and composites, such as aerospace, wind and solar energy, sports equipment, boating, and more.

Wish us success. And follow us. We’ll issue updates as we progress.

Originally published on