ACCESS: Circularity

Principles of circularity emphasize not only recovering materials at the end of their usable life but also reusing them in new products, refurbishing them to extend product lifecycles, and reducing the demand for finite raw materials.

Globally, the automotive community is increasingly focused on making it easier to disassemble end-of-life (EOL) vehicles, boosting EOL material recovery rates, and increasing the amount of recycled and reused material in new vehicle designs. For example, 50 of the 280 kilograms of plastics used in a Renault Espace come from recycled sources including closed-loop EOL plastics.26 Advanced plastics and polymer composites have the opportunity to play a significant role in improving automotive circularity in the following areas:

Collection and Dismantling

Design Impacts

Mechanic Garage full of crashed vehicles

The current recycling infrastructure is not optimized for the collection and sorting of end-of-life automotive polymers. Coordination across the recycling supply chain is needed to understand and demonstrate the value proposition of nationwide collection platforms for retrieving dismantled vehicles and automotive components.

Automakers are increasingly focused on designing vehicles for increased recyclability as well as easy and economic disassembly to extend vehicle lifespan through refurbishment, and to remanufacture materials into new automotive components (closed-loop) or into alternative applications (open-loop).

Opportunities for Advanced Plastics and Polymer Composites

Broadening participation in nationwide recycling initiatives, establishing new markets for recyclate materials, and streamlining activities between waste collection and manufacturing could help to reduce landfilling and improve the recyclability rate of post-consumer automotive advanced plastics and polymer composites.

Lifecycle tools and other long-term design strategies could help reduce technical and logistical barriers for EOL vehicle disassembly and improve recycled material recovery rates for automotive plastics and polymer composites.

Collaborative Activities

Recycling Infrastructure

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
Engage existing automotive material recovery facilities to benchmark progress and motivate research in effective automotive disassembly/dismantling approachesNear
Benchmark efforts in Europe to establish a nationwide closed-loop manufacturing infrastructure for effective retrieval of dismantled vehicles/components and post-consumer sorting and separation of recyclable plastics and polymer compositesNear
Collaborate with dismantlers on a study to quantify the value proposition for open-loop collection approaches of plastic parts (e.g., new recycle stream, feed for chemical recycling plants)Near, Mid
Identify high-value secondary applications for upcycled EOL polymersNear, Mid, Long
Launch a collaborative, holistic effort across multiple technology sectors to optimize the automotive EOL recycling infrastructure; determine funding requirements and create a unified voice and strategy for EOL vehiclesNear, Mid, Long
Fund (or enhance an existing) disassembly and remanufacturing shared R&D facility to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale dismantling operations for EOL automotive plastics and polymer compositesMid
Develop industry-wide vehicle fleet maintenance standards to ensure the consistent testing, refurbishment, replacement, and collection of end-of-life seating materials (i.e., for Level 5 autonomous vehicles)Mid
Identify seed funding opportunities to demonstrate small-scale/regional collection platforms and advanced sorting technologies for EOL automotive plastics and polymer compositesMid

Designing for Recyclability and Disassembly

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
Coordinate an industry-wide series of competitions, grants, and other creative and publicity-building efforts to demonstrate automotive designs which help improve the recovery rate of EOL automotive plastics and compositesNear, Mid
Establish industry standards to better define how the "recycled content" of a vehicle is quantifiedMid
Demonstrate high performance recycled plastics-intensive automotive designsMid
Design plastic and polymer composite automotive components for ease of disassembly/dismantlingMid
Pursue innovative design approaches that fully account for ease of disassembly and recovery of advanced polymer and composite parts including plastic-metal-hybrid partsMid, Long

Lifecycle Assessment

Design Impacts

Future shared and autonomous vehicles are expected to have higher usage rates and shorter lifespans which will increase the need for designs and materials solutions that extend overall vehicle service life. LCAs will help provide automakers with a clearer understanding of the cradle-to-grave energy use, environmental impacts, service life, and recyclability requirements of new automotive materials options.

Opportunities for Advanced Plastics and Polymer Composites

Using advanced plastics and polymer composites instead of alternative materials could save 89 million US gallons of gasoline and diesel over the lifetime of vehicles in North America produced in one year.27

Rigorous LCAs could help determine the environmental benefits of plastics manufacturing technologies—including conventional, bio-based, chemically recycled, and other recycled plastics technologies—which offer an opportunity to reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions across the entire value chain.28

Collaborative Activities

Modeling and Impact Analysis

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
*Establish an industry group or committee to identify and set LCA standards for automotive materialsNear, Mid, Long
Allocate funding for LCA benchmarking studies to understand the full lifecycle environmental and economic impacts of various cradle-to-grave scenariosNear
Determine if the lack of accepted and reliable LCAs addressing advanced plastics and polymer composites is a true barrier or just a perceived barrier by soliciting feedback from OEMs on existing LCAsNear
Create standardized LCA methods that are easier to use for automotive designersNear
Conduct an LCA study to understand the potential impact of environmental regulations and strategies to improve the sustainability of recycled and reused automotive advanced plastics and polymer compositesNear, Mid
Create a technoeconomic model to study alternative open-loop remanufacturing pathways that convert recovered advanced plastics and polymer composites into fuelsNear, Mid
Coordinate with OEMs to establish a shared database for gathering anonymized manufacturing data (e.g., energy use) to increase the robustness of LCA prediction toolsMid
Develop and apply AI tools within design and optimization software packages to accelerate materials discovery and deployment for automotive plastics and polymer compositesMid
Conduct a comparative LCA demonstration study on a plastic or polymer composite component (e.g., liftgate, exterior body panel, truck bed, seat system and metallic counterpart); evaluate durability, serviceability, repairability, cost, etc.Mid
Create a technoeconomic model to assess the feasibility of end-of-life vehicle dismantling processes for plastics-/composites-intensive automotive designsMid, Long
Launch a collaborative effort among key plastics recycling associations and facilities (e.g., Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers) to conduct LCAs on behalf of automotive OEMsMid, Long

Recovery and Sorting

Design Impacts

Without a clear value proposition or regulatory driver to recycle EOL vehicles, recycling organizations are unlikely to invest in technologies to identify and sort automotive materials.

Retrieved EOL materials must exhibit adequate aesthetic quality and mechanical performance to be remanufactured into automotive components. Automotive recyclers will require effective reprocessing technologies for extracting chemical additives and separating materials grades as well as best practices and guidelines for separating and recovering EOL parts for recycling.

Opportunities for Advanced Plastics and Polymer Composites

Advanced sorting technologies such as image recognition, near-infrared spectroscopy, and marker technologies (e.g., barcodes, invisible chemical markers) can enable high purity materials streams needed for remanufacturing vehicles with high levels of recycled plastics content.29

Industry-wide guidelines for collecting, sorting, and separating plastic from metal vehicle components can improve batch quality and reduce contaminant levels.30

Collaborative Activities

Identification and Sorting

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
*Pursue high-speed NDT/NDE techniques for end-of-life sorting to rapidly identify grades of plastics and polymer composites for reuse and remanufacturingMid
Increase advocacy efforts to help OEMs/consumers understand differences between "low-cost" and "recycled" materials grades Near
Support the development and funding of shared recycling centers to enable new techniques for material identification and sorting of end-of-life vehiclesNear, Mid
Launch a task force across automotive stakeholders and state and federal agencies to standardize test standards (i.e., high-speed NDE techniques) for rapid identification of end-of-life materials gradesMid
Increase collaborative efforts in legislative, regulatory, and voluntary consensus standard development to ensure gradual shift toward advanced sorting strategies for vehicle recyclingMid, Long

Materials Recovery

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
*Collaborate with state and local economic development groups and the automobile salvage industry on effective chemical and mechanical recycling strategies for non-commodity/mixed plasticsNear, Mid
Conduct a study to quantify the potential impact of innovative chemical recycling techniques for a broad range of automotive advanced plastics and polymer compositesNear
Seek inputs from interior automotive materials producers on common or standardized end-of-life materials recovery approaches; examine lessons learned from non-automotive sectors on establishing end-of-life recycling strategiesNear
Demonstrate recycling technologies that seek to maximize the recoverable energy and value of end-of-life plastics and polymer compositesNear, Mid


Design Impacts

GMC Truck Bed close up

Global automakers use closed-loop recycling approaches to reduce material waste and manufacturing energy consumption by replacing virgin materials with recycled materials in the same production cycle. Closed-loop manufacturing approaches are not yet broadly adopted due to insufficient scale, supply chain coordination, and recycle quality.

Opportunities for Advanced Plastics and Polymer Composites

Recyclable thermoplastics can be reprocessed and remanufactured into new automotive components.

Most automotive manufacturers, including Ford and Toyota, recycle old or damaged parts and reuse them in new vehicle components (e.g., old bumpers in new bumper reinforcement cores).31

Some advanced plastic recycling and recovery (APRR) technologies can convert used plastics into new products, chemicals and chemical feedstocks, and transportation fuels without the need for pre-cleaning treatments.32

Collaborative Activities

Closed Loop Applications

Near (2020–2022)Mid (2023–2025)Long (2026–2030)
Conduct a study of closed-loop manufacturing models to remanufacture automotive components using recycled plastics; identify critical application areasNear
Coordinate with OEMs to define application/material specifications, property standards, and targets for automotive components with high levels of recycled contentNear
Increase collaborative efforts among OEMs/Tier 1-2 suppliers to review best practices for remanufacturing with more recovered materials contentNear
Launch a demonstration program for novel automotive concepts that use end-of-life plastics and polymer composites (i.e., designed for ease of disassembly, repair, reuse)Near, Mid
Conduct a demonstration project for the end-of-life disassembly and remanufacturing of multimaterial assemblies and components (e.g., seating)Near, Mid
Standardize disassembly and remanufacturing approaches to make EOL automotive plastics and polymer composites easier to recycle; focus on high-volume applications (e.g., seats, instrument panels, air intake manifolds, body panels, air ducts)Near, Long