Is Recycled Plastic Helping You Save Gas?

Spend Matters welcomes this guest article by Rajiv Joarder of Mintec.

Car production is big business. In 2013, over 87 million cars were produced worldwide, and the US is the third largest, producing over 11 million and 12% of the global production. Each new model of car has to be safer, faster, more economical, reliable and cheaper to maintain than the previous model.

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The economic climate and wider knowledge of environmental impacts has increased the demand for “cheaper-to-run” vehicles in the US. Gone are the days of the big V8 gas guzzlers cruising the streets, replaced by lighter and smaller cars that leave behind a lower carbon footprint. This has been achieved in some part by using plastic components instead of metal.

Before the 1950s, there were hardly any plastic components in a car. Car manufacturers started using plastic because of the self-coloring and molding properties. That and the fact they were cheaper! Unknowingly, they were making the cars lighter and so more fuel efficient. Modern day cars contain 50% plastic by volume, which represents 15% of the total weight of the vehicle as opposed to just 6% of the total weight in the 1970s.

Plastic might make cars lighter and more fuel efficient, which is good on the consumers pocket but it’s not as great for the environment as it sounds. Plastic is made from crude oil, and production is a very energy-intensive process, so it has a high carbon footprint. In order to combat that, car manufacturers are increasingly using recycled plastics.

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The beauty of most plastics used in cars is that they can be recycled many times; they are made for you already, as well as cheaper and greener than virgin plastic. All you need to do is mold it to shape and add it to the car.

In 2013, 40% of the total plastic used in Chrysler cars was recycled. Jeep Wrangler and Chrysler 200 wheel liners have 64% recycled plastic in them. Ford uses recycled plastic to create upholstery as well as recycling damaged bumpers. GM uses air deflectors made from plastic caps, bottles and other recycled materials. Toyota recently announced that 20% of all plastics used in their vehicles are recycled. The list goes on and on.

With the price of crude oil plummeting, virgin plastic prices have also fallen, so common sense would dictate that car manufacturers will use less recycled plastic and the recycled price will fall in tandem. So far, however, the demand from car manufacturers has been so strong that the price has stayed high. The cost of crude oil, virgin plastic and recycled plastic is only one of the factors dictating the components of a car, and the push toward greener and carbon neutral is likely to continue being a factor.

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