The Evolution of Plastic in the Auto Industry

It certainly shouldn’t come as news to anyone that plastic plays a huge role in contemporary manufacturing practices. These synthetic materials can be found just about everywhere—soft drink bottles, computer monitors, toothbrushes, polyester clothing, and supermarket bags, just to name a few examples.

In fact, plastic also can be found in significant amounts inside the cars and trucks that we drive every day, and the use of these materials in the automotive industry has spurred major improvements in the transportation sector. It is all but inevitable that high-quality plastics will find an increasingly prominent place in this industry. Why is plastic so important in the automotive business? Why has the industry come to depend on these man-made materials to an ever-growing degree? How are these materials commonly recycled? We’ll take a closer look at this issue in the space below.

Types of Plastics Used in Automobiles

Plastics can be divided into two primary groups: thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers. They have substantially different characteristics. When heated, a thermosetting polymer undergoes an irreversible process that permanently shapes it into a specific form. By contrast, thermoplastic materials soften when heated, easily returning to their initial state when the heat source is removed. In other words, thermosetting polymers can be shaped only once; thermoplastics can be shaped and reshaped a multitude of times, if need be.

Because thermosetting polymers cannot be recast once they have been shaped by heat, they are commonly used wherever durability, heat-resistance, and structural integrity are important. These qualities make thermosetting polymers ideal for use in many types of auto parts. The list of parts where these materials can be found includes, but is not limited to, intake manifolds, battery casings, engine heat shields, bumpers, and window frames. One can also find certain types of thermoplastic materials inside automobiles, such as seats, instrument panels, and various kinds of injection-molded plastics.

Plastics used in automobile interiors can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are believed to pose a health hazard in large amounts. In recent years, there has been an industry-wide push to reduce the level of VOCs in automobiles.

Proportion of Plastics in Automobiles

If asked, the average person would likely underestimate the amount of plastic that can be found in their car—and probably by a significant margin. According to Future Markets Insights, no less than 50 percent of the interior components of a commercial car are made out of plastic. Plastic parts can be found in various areas of a typical automobile—from doors to headlights.

It seems likely that the proportion of plastic in the vehicles driven by consumers will only increase as the years go by. The trend seems to point in that direction—vehicles from a generation ago included a substantially lower amount of plastic. This brings up a natural question: Why has the automobile industry come to rely on plastic to such a degree? The answer lies with the many useful, cost-cutting benefits that plastic can provide.

Why Plastics Are Used in Automobiles

The use of plastics in automobiles has risen sharply over the last few decades, and this is a trend that’s worth exploring in greater detail. High-grade plastic materials supply a number of advantages:

  • Reduced car weight – Plastic is lightweight—particularly when compared with materials that might be used in their place to create car parts. Lowering the total weight of an automobile by using lightweight plastic confers many benefits. A lighter car consumes gasoline more slowly, which means greater fuel efficiency and lowered emissions. It also burns oil less rapidly.
  • Reduced production costs – The advent of plastic has been a boon to automotive manufacturers, allowing them to cut costs by a substantial margin.
  • Strength and durability – Plastics can bear heavy use, especially in proportion to their weight. Parts can maintain their integrity even when subjected to the various shocks and vibrations common to automotive handling.
  • Resistance to corrosion – Plastic parts aren’t subject to rust or other types of corrosion, which means that automotive components made of this material will maintain structural integrity longer.
  • Flexibility in parts design – Plastic can be easily molded into a preferred shape. This is particularly true of thermosetting polymers, which can maintain their specific structure and composition after the initial formation. This gives engineers an enormous range of possibilities when designing car parts, while alternative materials may not be able to offer this kind of flexibility.
  • Noise reduction – Plastic parts have sound-dampening qualities that alternative materials may not be able to provide. For example, properly designed plastic gears can substantially reduce noise levels associated with the function of this equipment.
  • Thermal insulation – Plastic materials can provide this better than many comparable materials.
  • Receptive to paint – In general, plastic parts are easy to paint—and the coating can be expected to adhere over the long term. Again, this is an advantage not necessarily shared by alternative materials.
  • Visual attraction – Plastic can be shaped into a wide variety of aesthetically striking designs that enhance the visual appeal of the automobile as a whole.

Plastic Recycling in the Auto Industry

The automotive recycling business racks up $32 billion in sales each year, according to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA). For those involved in the auto recycling industry, it’s a point of pride that most components of a typical vehicle are customarily recycled, as everything from the gas tank to the transmission on a “retired” car may be removed and resold.

It should be noted, however, that automotive plastics can be a little tricky to recycle. An automobile can contain literally several dozen types of plastics, and these must be properly separated as part of the recycling process. Types of plastics commonly found in automobiles include acrylonitrile-butadiene styrene (ABS), polypropylene (PP), high density polyethylene (HDPE), and polycarbonate.

Traditionally, a substantial amount of automotive plastics have ended up dumped in a landfill. There is an alternative, however: Polychem USA can recycle a wide range of automotive plastics. If you have questions about our services and the specific types of materials we handle, feel free to contact us at any time.


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