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Automakers Rev Up Recycling and Sustainability Efforts

By 3p Contributor

By Charles Krome

The auto industry is inextricably linked to both the environment and the economy. And how the industry handles ecological concerns today is guaranteed to have a corresponding impact on society tomorrow.

While that may seem obvious, people don’t always stop to think about how deep the connection goes. It’s no longer just fuel economy and emissions rates that matter, as multiple stakeholders are working to develop a sustainable, yet profitable automotive marketplace.

When considering the ecological and economic impacts of the auto industry, we can look at a lot of fresh material — in every sense of the word.

Materials to reduce weight

Although this topic goes far beyond fuel-economy issues, that’s still the ideal place to start. For example, an increasing number of automakers are investigating the use of lighter materials to reduce the overall weight of vehicles, which is one of the top factors in fuel efficiency. One manufacturer is on the cutting-edge of progress here: BMW.

The brand may be better known for its premium sport sedans, but it’s also pushing the sustainability envelope with its electrified “i” vehicles, including the i3 EV and the i8 plug-in hybrid sports cars. Both showcase high-tech, highly-efficient powertrains. But what allows owners to really maximize efficiency is the vehicles' relatively low curb weights. For that, BMW builds those cars with plenty of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP).

The material is as strong as steel, according to the company, but it’s also 50 percent lighter. It’s 30 percent lighter than aluminum, too. Yet what may be more important than the benefits of CFRP is BMW’s economic commitment to bringing it to the mainstream, setting a great example for how companies can successfully integrate their environmental efforts into the rest of their business models.

Indeed, BMW invested $300 million to build the world’s largest carbon fiber plant — in Moses Lake, Washington — where the company projects it will add a total of about 200 jobs. Wondering what brought the Bavarian automaker to the state of Washington? It was attracted by the ability to source all power for the carbon-fiber production lines from sustainable hydroelectric sources.

Materials to reuse and regrow

Along with the new materials, automakers are looking at those that have been around for a while as well, whether they’re drawn from previously-owned products or from nature. This way, companies can move beyond reducing fuel consumption and help lower the significant amount of petrochemicals used in the plastic pieces of the vehicle itself.

Ford, for one, relies on natural-fiber plastics — derived from materials such as rice hulls and kenaf, a hemp-like plant related to the hibiscus flower—for items such as door panels and wiring harnesses. Ford additionally leverages soy-based foam for many of its seat cushions, instead of petroleum-based products. What’s covering the seats? Fabrics made from at least 25 percent post-industrial or post-consumer recycled content. Even the popular Ford F-150 pickup and Mustang muscle car offer seats containing Repreve — which are made entirely from recycled materials.

Of course, vehicles that specifically target green drivers offer similar benefits, but they can also raise the sustainability bar in the process. The Kia Soul EV, for example, recently became the first vehicle in the industry to be validated by Underwriters Laboratory (UL) for its environmental efforts. Kia’s key innovation: using 52.7 pounds of bio-based content to create 19 parts in the Soul’s interior, from its carpeting to its headliner.

Materials to recycle

Companies can also do their part to complete the automotive circle of life, by helping to make it easier for their vehicles to be recycled when they’re taken out of service. And again, there are benefits to both the economy and the ecology. Per the Auto Alliance of 12 global automakers selling in the United States, for instance, recycling cars and trucks at the end of their lives is a $32 billion industry that supports about 140,000 jobs across the country.

The impact on the environment is harder to measure, but one notable success story is the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program. The deadly element was used throughout the industry before 2003, and this program has been responsible for collecting more than 6 tons of it, preventing the mercury from potentially being released into the environment.

Today, with the public and automakers alike realizing the need for more aggressive efforts, companies are proactively engineering their vehicles specifically for ease of recycling. This is especially true in countries such as Japan, which have strict national guidelines about the percentage of each vehicle that has to be recyclable.

Toyota is a case in point. It’s one of the many automakers, U.S. companies included, that provides dismantling instructions for recyclers, and it also has launched efforts to recover older materials and reuse them in new vehicles. This ranges from collecting discarded bumpers and using the processed material for “new” plastics to reusing materials from its hybrid batteries in the same way.

So, while fuel efficiency has been a concern for manufacturers and consumers for some time, even the most fuel-efficient vehicles in the world can be greener. It’s not just about what these cars can do. It’s also what they’re made of. The auto industry is making changes to drive the planet and the economy in a healthy direction.

Image credit: Pixabay

Charles Krome is an automotive expert and writer for CARFAX who stays up on the latest trends in sustainability and technology as they relate to car buying.

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