Recycled materials find use in automotive interiors

The automotive industry is perhaps one of the most prominent when it comes to trying new materials in high volume production.

The once conservative industry has come under increasingly stringent legislative pressure that has forced its hand when it comes to embracing new technology and new materials.

Increasing safety legislation that started in the 1970s and is still prominent today has no doubt achieved its goals. However, one of the side effects of the safety-first approach has been that modern cars have put on weight. Since 1990 the average mass of a car has increased 8kg annually. And that is at odds with the current set of legislative drivers.

Cars must continue to be safer than ever, but they must also be more efficient. Current EU targets are strict and will be tough to meet. OEMs must get the average tailpipe emissions to 95g of CO2 per km across an entire fleet of vehicles. To put that in context that's roughly equivalent to 70mpg. The average at the moment is 132g of CO2 per km, about 50mpg.

As a result, OEMs have found themselves on a quest for lighter materials. However, many are not just searching for lightweight materials, but also materials that are considered 'green'. Technical plastic recycling and compounding company, Luxus, based in Lincolnshire, has been delivering recycled thermoplastic materials to the automotive market for over a decade.

Though there has been a pull from industry for plastic components made from recycled parts, these have traditionally been non-visual surfaces such as under the bonnet parts that typically have a recycled content of up to 60%.

"That pull to have recycled content has been going on for a long time," says Terry Burton, a technical manager at Luxus. "That was largely led by Nissan but other people have taken it onboard as well. Most manufacturers are using recycled content under the bonnet and that's now fairly standard. However, for interior parts it is not so common. As far as we know we are the only people in Europe doing that because of the difficulty in fulfilling the criteria."

The styling, design and use of a car interior is arguably more important than the external look of a car. It is what surrounds the driver and though it might not sell the car initially, its appearance and feel cannot be understated.

As a result of its success at producing high quality plastics with a recycled-content suitable for car interiors, Luxus now supplies materials to a number of major OEMs including Nissan, Honda, JLR, BMW, Toyota and Renault.

"We are increasingly doing a lot of visual parts," says Burton. "I think at the moment these parts are all likely to be non-structural, but we are seeing more centre consoles, glove boxes and door panels going over to plastics with ever higher recycled content."

Part of the attraction of using plastic materials with recycled content is that it is considered a green alternative. However, that is not the only advantage.

A recently developed material from Luxus called Hycolene – a Polypropylene (PP) – showed that parts were 10-12% lighter compared to virgin plastic equivalents. The material also showed significantly better scratch resistance, sometimes by as much as 75%. The parts can even be colour matched to dark colours with low gloss.

"We can't offer an inferior product to the automotive industry just because it is a 'greener' alternative," says Burton. "The expectation is that we deliver a product that is fit for purpose, which is as good as the prime, so we can't deliver something that has an inferior surface finish.

"It's the very best recycled material that will go on to the interior and anything that won't give that good surface finish we take out. We can sought and grade the recycled content for Class A interior surfaces, for under bonnet applications and further down the line for other products like wheelie bins where quality of finish is not as important. We have to build confidence with industry and show that recycled material can deliver a quality surface finish."

In many cases the recycled plastic content can be mixed in with virgin plastic and used on existing moulds, using existing processes, making it a drop-in solution.

Nissan has been running a project called the Green Program that is looking to eliminate all waste throughout a vehicles life, from design through to disposal. As a result, the 2010 Nissan Qashqai has 50kg of recycled polymers utilised throughout its structure with over 80 parts being developed using material with recycled content. At the same time, the original Nissan Leaf featured a material made from 39% recycled plastic bottles.

With the enthusiam from industry creating evermore demand, Luxus hopes to continue development and produce recycled materials for non-black visual surface applications in the near future. In addition, the company is continuing to develop higher recycled content plastics for use within many different industrial applications.

"We have grades already that are 95% recycled," says Burton. "There is some impact modifiers and masterbatch, but it is mostly recycled content.

"The luggage area, for example, we have already made from that formulation. Interiors, however, typically have more primer."

Automotive supplier ContiTech-Group is also keen to push a lighter and greener materials agenda for some of its interior materials. Though, perhaps, best known for the supply of tyres, the company in fact supplies the industry with a range of components from brake systems to instrumentation to interior materials.

Interior surface specialist Benecke-Kaliko, which forms part of the ContiTech-Group, uses a seat material that is made up of 50% renewable raw material called Acella Eco.

In addition it uses TEPEO, an interior foil that is up to 50% lighter than PVC, resulting in the weight of a car being reduced by 2kg. TEPCO produces 48% less CO2 over its entire lifecycle compared with a conventional PVC foil.

Benecke-Kaliko is especially well respected in the industry and recently won best interior of a production car at the 'Automotive interiors Expo 2013' for the Opel Adam.

Justin Cunningham

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