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Overcoming the image problem of recycled materials

luxury car interior

Cars, it is often said, are an extension of ourselves. And just as we have come to depend on technology and are increas­ingly concerned about living healthily, our vehi­cles follow suit.

Regulations and market demands are push­ing for leaner and more limber vehicles that are more fuel efficient and environmentally sustainable. This means there is an increasing role for innovative recycled materials that are lighter, stronger and reduce overall CO2 emissions.

Recyclers will have a role to play, but they may have to overcome an image problem. In an industry outlook report, legal and professional services giant PwC warned auto equipment suppliers and manufacturers that they will need to meet rising customer expectations as regulations toughen up: “Your ability to place your company in the vanguard of product trends without running afoul of ever more stringent environmental rules will surely be tested.”

In the UK there has been a move within the industry to consider the complete life-cycle of a vehicle. Since 2015, the EU has demanded that 95% of end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) by weight must be reused, recycled or recovered. Signatories to the Society of Motor Manufac­turers and Traders’ (SMMT) sustainability report – which include 27 UK-based manufac­turers and suppliers such as BMW, Ford and Michelin – achieved this target.

The report also revealed the extent to which such companies are already recycling (see box). But while much of this will be the metal and ‘under the hood’ materials, a £1.2m EU-funded project is showing what could be achieved where the driver sits.

The Recyclite project is a consortium made up of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), UK technical plastics firm Luxus, compounding and extru­sion firm Coperion and cabin interior compo­nent supplier International Automotive Components (IAC).

Its purpose is to test a polymer called Hyco­lene, which can utilise up to 50% recycled plas­tic but perform better than purely virgin material. This means it could in theory be used for the interiors of luxury cars – previously a no-go area for anything but the most high-end pristine materials.

“When you have something in the cabin, requirements are very high. Safety-critical devices such as airbags can limit the type of material that can be used.”

Hycolene was developed by Luxus. Technical director Christel Croft says the results of the project, which involved two years of testing how Hycolene could be commercialised, are very promising.

“The first piece of work was done around 2013 in the lab. We were working on improving the properties of materials for the interior of vehicles and found a formulation that was lighter than current materials and was also better in terms of scratch resistance.

“As with using virgin plastic, what you do in the lab does not necessarily scale up to com­mercial level. It was quite obvious that we couldn’t do that without some investment, in terms of equipment but also in terms of skills. That’s why we applied for the EU grant and started the consortium.”

Croft says the European Innovation Partner­ship (EIP), which provided the bulk of the funding, was attracted to Hycolene because it tapped into a hard-to-reach market.

“There is still some kind of resistance to employing recycled materials for visible parts,” she says. “It is happening, but they need to be appealing to customers, and have sustainable and environmental benefits.

“The EIP also wants to help the EU match its target and push the industry on ELVs and things like that. There was a nice fit with what we are proposing.”

Croft describes Hycolene as a family of products: “At the moment there are three grades. The percentage of recycled material depends on different things, one being the chemical properties you want to have.

“The other factor is the colour. The darker the colour, the more recycled material you can put into it. The lighter the colour, the more lim­ited you are in terms of the feedstock. We work quite closely with suppliers to make sure of the quality but we also do our own tests.”

So far, Luxus has looked to post-industrial plastic waste. The problem with post-consumer waste is the odour, which is hard to shift, says Croft. But after winning an Innovate UK grant, the firm has started a project to look at remov­ing the smell from post-consumer plastic.

“Our ambition is to sell about 5,000 tonnes of Hycolene material within the next two to three years,” she says. “Testing for the sector is very demanding. When you have something in the cabin, requirements are very high. Safety-critical devices such as airbags can limit the type of material that can be used.”

It takes time to get new products into the manufacturing supply chain; the validation processes can take anything from 18 months to two years. Hycolene is not there yet, but Croft thinks the car industry is becoming increas­ingly receptive to using recycled material.

“There are quite a number of recycled plas­tics already in cars but most are hidden under the bonnet. People probably don’t realise and sometimes manufacturers are not keen to talk about it.”

One company that seems to be more than happy to talk about recycling is JLR. Its Realcar initiative (REcycled ALuminium CAR) was launched in 2008 in partnership with alumin­ium supplier Novelis. Novelis takes back off-cuts from JLR’s stamping processes and recycles them into secondary metal sheets.

Robert Crow, JLR materials innovation manager, has worked on getting lighter materials into car bodies and also worked on the Recyclite project.

“JLR is a company with environmental inno­vation at its heart,” he says. “How we deal with waste becomes one of the core engineering investigation for any new material. Because Novelis worked with us in a strategic alliance, we are able to have that closed-loop process.

“We create more than 50,000 tonnes of press shop aluminium waste – enough to make about 200,000 Jaguar XEs.”

“It’s quite impressive the amount of stuff we are taking back now. We create more than 50,000 tonnes of press shop aluminium waste – enough to make about 200,000 Jaguar XEs.”

For Crow, a key strength of the Recyclite pro­ject is that it involves the right supply chain: “IAC is a ‘tier one’ supply chain company. That’s important – it means the company that is going to use the material understands the require­ments and can give an unbiased opinion of the technology.”

He is also excited about the potential for some “really solid weight savings” and improved scratch resistance. But, like Croft, he is aware that customers will still need to be persuaded of the feedstock’s worth.

JLR’s recycled material efforts do not stop there, so what else has Crow worked on?

“We have been involved very much with Innovate UK on a number of projects that have looked at sustainability. There are a couple of projects which come to mind as part of our portfolio, including a project call Car Bio, which looks at the use of flax and cashew nut resin as a replacement for carbon fibres.

“We have also worked with Tate & Lyle, tak­ing their waste calcium carbonate – a product of their refining process – and putting that in our polypropylene grades for things like wheel arch liners. That project was pretty challenging, but I think it was a great example of thinking outside the box in terms of pulling the supply chain together.”

Meanwhile, Luxus’s strategy is to be a centre of expertise and excellence in high-perfor­mance materials with recycled content.

Croft says: “There is strong technical knowl­edge in the UK. It’s a difficult and uncertain time at the moment – we don’t know where things are going to go in terms of legislation or the market. To be confident we need to ensure investment and skills for the future.”

Automotive recycling efforts

automotive recycling

automotive recycling

Based on 27 companies that responded to the SMMT report:

  • A third of signatories sent zero waste to landfill; this included all Vauxhall manufacturing plants
  • Total waste sent to landfill by all signatories decreased by 41.2% to 4,148 tonnes
  • Waste sent to landfill by supply chain producers fell 14.3% to 766 tonnes
  • Ferrous metals made up the largest amount of material recovered from end-of-life vehicles
  • Number of signatories with on-site renewable energy production rose from two in 2009 to 12 in 2015

Source: SMMT 2016 UK automotive sustainability report

Case study

abs grades 600x400

abs grades 600x400

In February, Axion Polymers launched a range of 100% recycled acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) grades suitable for injection moulding applications, particularly in the construction and automotive sectors. Recovered from the non-metallic waste fraction from end-of-life vehicles, Axion says the Axpoly r-ABS resins deliver a carbon footprint saving of two-thirds when compared with virgin ABS. All production batches are traceable back to the origin of the raw material as part of an integrated, closed-loop system. Product development technologist Mark Keenan said: “The traceability enables manufacturers to enhance the green credentials of products, such as building products or automotive components, and produce them at a lower cost than using virgin polymers.”

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