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Plastic recycling claims discredited by CCI report

CCI report labelling plastic recycling ‘fraud’ puts eco-friendly car-maker claims in spotlight

4 Mar 2024

A REPORT published by the Centre for Climate Integrity this month suggests ‘Big Oil’ and the plastics industry has known for more than three decades that the recycling of plastics is neither economically nor technically feasible – and that those who promote the use of so-called recycled plastic materials within their products are little more than charlatans.

A synopsis of the report made public by The Guardian states that plastics are “notoriously difficult to recycle”, and that “doing so requires meticulous sorting … of chemically distinct varieties of plastics” which cannot be recycled together.

Plastic recycling processes, which the report labels as “already expensive” are made more so by the degree to which plastics degrade with each incarnation, meaning they can generally be used only once or twice before it is rendered completely useless.

The report calls into question the claims of myriad vehicle manufacturers using recycled plastics in products ranging from interior trim to bumper bars, seat structures, upholstery, carpets and more.

Estimates place the use of vehicular plastics at as high as 317kg per vehicle in some instances (an upper large segment SUVs being one example), bringing alarming magnitude to the scale of the issue.

While many auto manufacturers spruik the use of recycled materials without foundation, there are others which actively work to ensure a circular economy is part of the new-vehicle production process – while at the same time providing transparent data on material sourcing and supply chain traceability.

The CCI says the industry has known for decades that the realities of recycled plastics simply do not match the claims, saying manufacturers “obscure” the truth to seem more environmentally responsible.

“The companies lied,” said the CCI’s president of fossil-fuel accountability advocacy group Richard Wiles.

“It is time to hold them accountable for the damage that they have caused.”

The report’s authors suggest there is clear evidence to show that oil and petrochemical companies – as well as their trade associations – may have “broken laws designed to protect the public from misleading marketing and pollution”, some of it dating back to the 1950s.

It also says the same misconduct continues today, and that over the past several years, industry lobbying groups have promoted so-called chemical recycling which breaks plastic polymers down into tiny molecules to make new plastics, synthetic fuels, and other products.

However, it is widely recognised that this process creates pollution and is even more energy-intensive than traditional plastic recycling – or indeed forming virgin plastics. The report states that plastic recycling is little more than an “example of how non-science got into the minds of industry and environmental activists alike”.

The CCI estimates that the climate impact of plastic production and disposal accounts for 3.4 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

It is not all bad news from the automotive sector. Of note, Audi launched a pilot program dubbed MaterialLoop in 2022 which included not only recycled plastics, but glass and metal as well.

The trial aimed to show that a circular economy for end-of-life vehicles was possible, while retaining a high level of quality in components manufactured from second-use materials.

On the plastics front, Audi collaborated with Netherlands-based firm LyondellBasell to create new automotive components from mixed plastic waste, addressing one of the key issues raised in the recent CCI report.

According to LyondellBasell, plastic components from end-of-life vehicles are shredded and processed using a chemical process which converts the materials into pyrolysis oil. This product is then used as a raw material in the manufacture of “new” plastics for use in automotive interior applications.

Chemical recycling of end-of-life plastics has its champions and its critics, says Stephen Moore of Plastics Today.

Citing a report published by IDTechEx this month, Mr Moore said advanced plastic recycling solutions are not the silver bullet many claim, with both pyrolysis and depolymerisation techniques delivering questionable environmental benefit. 

IDTechEx’s appraisal of the technologies show that more than 20 million tonnes per year of plastics will be recycled by these techniques by 2033, much of it destined for use in the automotive industry.

While the materials possess properties capable of replacing oil-based incumbents, the high level of energy used in producing the product – along with emissions generated – flag other concerns.
Mr Moore says that despite optimism for the technology, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing debate as to how chemical recycling processes are classified and recognised for the green credentials – or lack thereof.

“The chemical recycling of plastic waste is a rapidly evolving industry, from regulatory decisions to emerging technology solutions,” he stated.

“There will continue to be a raging debate surround the merits of chemical recycling, as question marks remain over both the economic and environmental viability of the technology.”

One vehicle manufacturer which seems to be doing right by that process is Polestar.

Polestar’s efforts in the use of recycled PVC and PET waste materials, alongside more innovative materials including reconstructed wood (bionaptha), polyester, recycled fishing nets, flax-based fibres, post-industrial waste aluminium, and post-consumer steel, are notable, and expanding with each new generation of vehicle.

The Sino-Swedish manufacturer uses recycled materials in varying ratios in components including upholstery, interior trim and garnishing, headlining, sheet metal panels, body, subframe, brake components, and seat frames.

Speaking to GoAuto from Sweden this week, a Polestar spokesperson said the level of recycled material now able to be quantitively substantiated has increased to almost 20 per cent in its latest model range.

“While the recycled material quantity in Polestar 2 was untraced – and thus assumed to be zero per cent – for the Polestar 4 we have secured 19 per cent recycled plastic, which marked the start of proving our increasing ambitions for us of recycled materials in our cars,” the spokesperson said.

“This share combines post-industrial and post-consumer scrap, while notably excluding the accounting of home scrap, in alignment with ISO 14021.

“All of the recycled content was Global Recycled Standard (GRS) certified. GRS is the most comprehensive and well-known certification (standard) for recycled content which requires meeting both social and environmental criteria in addition to defining material traceability.”

BMW Group is also forging ahead with advances in recycling it says now include an extensive array of recycled and plastic alternatives – including flax-, hemp-, and kenaf-based alternatives.

Wood foams have been proven as a substitute for plastic-based adhesives, furthering the group’s development of new plastic recyclates and bioplastics with “particularly low carbon footprints”.

As is the case with many vehicle manufacturers, BMW is also working to utilise recyclable textiles in the upholstery of its vehicles, its synthetic textiles said to be reusable two or three times over.

These measures, along with many others, aim to reduce the German firm’s carbon footprint by more than 40 per cent by the end of the decade.

Speaking with GoAuto this week, BMW Australia general manager of corporate communications Leanne Blanckenberg said the Group’s commitment to the circular economy is ongoing, with a reduction in resource consumption always front of mind.

“BMW Group’s commitment to the circular economy represents a fundamental shift in our approach to vehicle design and production,” she explained.

“By embracing principles to rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle, BMW aims to minimise resource consumption and environmental impact throughout the entire lifestyle of all products.

“This approach begins with sustainable sourcing and procurement practices, ensuring that raw materials are obtained in an environmentally responsible manner. By prioritising materials with minimal environmental impact and maximising the use of recycled or renewable resources, BMW reduces the strain on natural ecosystems and minimises the carbon footprint associated with resource extraction.

“The company’s emphasis is on rethinking innovative design strategies to optimise resource efficiency and facilitate easier disassembly and recycling at the end of a product’s life. By designing vehicles with recyclability in mind from the outset, BMW ensures that materials can be efficiently recovered and reintegrated into the production process.”

Ms Blanckenberg said that much like Polestar, BMW was working to ensure traceability and accountability of this process was present throughout the supply chain process, and that all associated suppliers are held to a similarly high standard when awarded a BMW contract.

“BMW Group takes a proactive approach to ensure traceability and accountability of its supply chain processes. Through a combination of contractual agreements, ongoing evaluation, and supplier engagement initiatives, the company works to mitigate sustainability risks and promote responsible practices throughout its supplier network,” she detailed.

“Therefore, BMW Group has made compliance with defined sustainability requirements a prerequisite for awarding all contracts. When a supplier signs a contract with the BMW Group, it undertakes to implement necessary preventive or corrective measures no later than the start of production or by an agreed target date. The supplier confirms that it will also require and track compliance with these agreements by its subcontractors.

“At the start of production, we assess the implementation status of the externally validated preventive measures as part of an internal target management system. BMW Group also offers a comprehensive training program to raise supplier awareness of due diligence obligations and enable them to implement corresponding measures.

“By integrating these measures into its supplier management practices, BMW Group enhances the traceability of its supply chain processes and promotes continuous improvement in sustainability performance.”

Interestingly, and perhaps in more detail than has previously been advised, Ms Blanckenberg said the percentage of recycled materials found in current BMW models is continuing to increase.

Although the number varies between models – to as high as 60 per cent in some scenarios – the trend is one that continues to climb and has done since the early 1990s.

“BMW has been using recycled materials in its cars since the 1990s, with 60kg of recycled plastics on average integrated into new vehicles, this represents a proportion of at least 20 per cent. By 2030, the aim is for this figure to be over 40 per cent,” she said.

“Plastic thread derived from disused fishing nets is currently used in the floor panels of the BMW iX, the X1, and the BMW i5. The luggage compartment of the panelling in the i5 comprises up to 60 per cent recycled plastic. A BMW 7 Series contains 120 recycled components.

“Recycled plastics refashioned as premium material also features on components including the front grille and door panelling throughout the i7 cabin.

“Further, BMW Group is recycling maritime plastic waste in cooperation with Danish company Plastix. The fishing nets are sorted by type then processed into a plastic recyclates in an innovative process. These recycled fishing nets are used for the fabrics used to make headliners and floor mats for a few new models, including the BMW iX and i7.”

While there are other manufacturers who can back their eco-credentials when it comes to reconstituting plastics, there are many more that cannot. It is recommended that the green credentials of any manufacturer are researched thoroughly before accepting any claim as fact.

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