The automotive industry should consider simpler materials over high-performance complex composites at the initial design stage so that cars can be more readily recycled at the end of their lives, according to UK-based plastics recycler Axion Polymers.

The company sees no currently viable recycling routes for many of the recently developed thermoset composite materials used in modern lightweight vehicles.

Axion Polymers’ business development director Keith Freegard is calling on the auto industry to look at locally-sourced, sustainable options first, such as 100 percent recycled thermo-polymers derived from a stable long-term supply of end-of-life vehicles.

“While I applaud the use of novel new materials to make lightweight bodies and structural components for cars,” says Freegard, “my challenge to materials scientists and designers is to think about the simpler alternatives: mono-materials that save carbon and can be eventually recovered for re-use at end-of-life.”

Although Freegard admits that it is tempting to use more unusual composite and reinforced fibre products that can make exciting lightweight components, he reckons that there is scant regard given to how these very technical, high-performing and complicated composites are treated at the end of a vehicle’s life.

The company’s Axpoly plastics are extracted from end-of-life vehicles at its Shredder Waste Advanced Processing Plant (SWAPP) at Trafford Park, UK and further refined at its nearby Salford facility. Further investment has created higher capacity to produce greater volumes of polypropylene and a new grade of ABS, which are all traceable back to their origin in UK end-of-life vehicles. To find out more, we spoke to Keith Freegard.

Could you tell us a little more about Axpoly?

Axpoly is our brand-name for high quality, recycled plastics produced under our own control and in our own factories (or materials refineries). The primary benefits to end-users are:

• Drop-in replacement for virgin resin
• Sustainable, ‘closed-loop’ supply chain
• Made from recycled post-consumer raw materials
• Huge savings in CO2 versus virgin polymers (e.g. 75% saving for ABS polymer)
• Stable pricing – not linked to volatile oil market
• Cost-down on polymer raw material

You want OEMs to specify simpler materials over high-performance composites. Given the current technological and economic restraints of recycling, what else can be done to prompt OEMs and / or help the recyclers?

That’s a big question! I believe that vehicle manufacturers need to be given a much closer link with the end of life vehicle (ELV) recyclers. At present in the UK there is no fiscal lever that acts in relation to a vehicle manufacturer’s producer responsibility for its own-brand of ELVs. So ‘no real cost equals no real interest’. The huge volume of materials generated in the UK by recycling around 2 million vehicles per year should be viewed as the most sustainable, local source of raw materials required to produce new cars and vans.

Furthermore, policies that work are ‘carrots’, not ‘sticks’ – so create a ‘demand-pull’ economic driver that actually rewards those manufacturers who take the early steps into specifying and using much higher levels of recycled plastic content in new motor vehicles. Ideas that have been proposed include:

Lower VAT rate for recycled plastics.
Capital allowances as a tax benefit based upon implementing higher levels of recycled content, e.g. to pay for new mould tooling.
Offset other ‘environmental taxes’ in direct relation to the percentage of recycled plastic used in a new car. This idea works much better for, say, packaging where OEMs already pick up a proportion of the cost of processing their waste at end of life.
A true ‘carbon tax’ on the embedded carbon in raw materials used by vehicle manufacturers.

So could more be done to close the knowledge gap that appears to exist between what OEMs believe are positive environmental choices and ELV reality?

In my own opinion every new designer, engineer and material technologist should be given an obligatory week of training that involves following end of life products through the existing ELV processing chain. They might then understand some of the issues created by the original design and material choices and construction techniques they selected 15 years before when the car was manufactured.

As we understand it, engine compartments have been fitted with plastic parts made from recycled components for some time. To what extent are such parts with recycled plastic content filtering into other, more visible areas of the car?

While recycled content plastics have been used for some time – it is important to distinguish between ‘industrial scrap recycling’ and true ‘post-consumer’ closed-loop recycling. Axion has a process that starts with the capture of old cars at end-of-life. We then carry out traditional metals recycling via large scale shredding followed by a highly technical non-metallics sorting process and finally a polymer sorting refinery to complete the extraction and recovery of fully traceable, closed-loop plastics in a demonstration of the circular economy.

I think that in the next few years we will see a progressing from under-bonnet and under-body applications for generic ‘black polymers’ made from recycled content, into more technical and highly specified colour-matched interior plastic mouldings. This will happen as the sorting and recovery processes become more advanced and be customer demand-led as vehicle manufacturers start to understand the economic and environmental benefits to be gained from using closed-loop plastics.