The environmental impact of the automotive industry is significant, but a number of factors are driving the sector towards greater sustainability. These include new European legislation aimed at reducing the environmental impact of plastics, changes in societal priorities, and trends within the automotive industry itself, such as the transition from internal combustion vehicles to electric ones.

The environmental impact of vehicles occurs mainly in two stages: the manufacturing stage and the usage stage. The manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles is notably impactful, but this is offset by their significantly lower impact during use.

Plastics are an important component in vehicles, with a third of the 30,000 parts of a vehicle made from one of the 39 families of plastics currently used in manufacturing. However, the use of recycled plastics in the sector is currently limited to low-demand and unseen applications, primarily because recycled materials often contain impurities and other pollutants. These limit their use in high-value components or those with high thermal or mechanical demands.

The DECOAT project’s two innovative technologies — INDAR primer and solvent-based recycling — hold significant promise for improving the sustainability of plastics in automotive applications.

1. INDAR Primer from Rescoll: This is a groundbreaking technology designed to debond on demand different types of materials that are otherwise difficult to separate. One of the major challenges faced in recycling automotive plastics lies in the multi-material construction of components. Without separating it is often difficult to recycle these in a way that retains their quality and value, making them unsuitable for high-value applications. However, with the INDAR primer, components previously considered unrecyclable due to their composite nature could be debonded and separated into their constituent materials. This means more plastic could be recovered in a usable, high-quality state and subsequently used in manufacturing new parts, including high-value and high-demand ones. This technology could significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on virgin plastic materials, thereby boosting sustainability.

2. Solvent-Based Recycling System: The second technology involves using solvents to separate plastics by dissolving a target plastic material, which can then be recovered from the solution, or the leftover material can be recovered. This approach tackles another key issue in the automotive recycling industry — the degradation of plastic material quality during the recycling process. The traditional mechanical recycling methods often result in shorter polymer chains, which negatively impacts the performance characteristics of the recycled plastic. However, with the solvent-based recycling system, the original polymer chains retain their length, resulting in high-quality recycled material that retains the original properties of the plastic. This makes it possible to use recycled plastic in demanding applications, potentially even those with high thermo-mechanical demands, thereby increasing the amount and types of components that could be made from recycled materials.

By using these technologies, the automotive industry could take significant strides towards increasing the proportion of recycled materials used in vehicle production. This would result in a decreased environmental footprint of vehicles over their lifecycle, from production to end of life, contributing to the broader societal goals of waste reduction and resource efficiency.

The DECOAT project has been testing and developing processes to use these technologies in different applications, including automotive internal parts, but also in textiles such as waterproof coatings for bike bags, and household appliances such as electrical plug sockets. The results of these developments will be presented at the Final Webinar on the 27th of June.

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