The automotive industry has led technological transformations in the past. As international attention turns towards sustainability—with the threat of climate change pressing down on all nations, regardless of the politics behind the notion—the industry seems once again prepared to lead the charge towards change.
Waste tires and fossil fuel consumption weigh heavily on the industry. It is packaging, however, that has arisen in recent talks surrounding automotive sustainability. Packing continues to be an overlooked element that permeates the automotive industry’s supply chain. Now, different manufacturers have expressed interest in the pursuit of reusable packaging.
This packaging would ideally last multiple trips while providing consistent protection to the parts that car manufacturers are in constant need of. The realities of this sustainable practice, however, are more complicated than they may initially seem.
Take, make, dispose
The industrialized creation process currently operates on the philosophy of “take, make, dispose.” Plants take in the materials they need to create a product. Once those materials have been used to their full ability, the plant disposes of the waste through landfills and alternative means. At this point, a mere 14% of the plastic used by the automotive industry is recycled, while 40% finds its way to landfills. Plastic, unlike a number of other materials, does not degrade quickly. In fact, the plastic that is currently being sent to landfills around the world is predicted to finally degrade after a thousand years.
Plastic’s impact on the environment is insurmountably significant. At the present moment, there is an island of plastic waste larger than France floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That plastic not only compromises the ecosystems of millions of sea-dwelling creatures, but it actively kills them when they come into contact with it. Sea turtles, for example, who would normally filter sea water out of their stomachs, are now choking on the plastic they take in while searching for food.
The industry’s ambitions
Correcting the vast amount of plastic waste that the automotive industry currently produces will take time. However, a number of manufacturers are aware of rising concerns surrounding the subject. In turn, those manufacturers are moving to reduce their plastic waste output.
Indorama Ventures, for example, has recently partnered with Loop Industries with sustainable plastic in mind. The two corporations intend to collaborate on the production of sustainable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin and polyester fibers. It’s possible that the partnership could produce samples of their product within the first few months of 2020. [10-30-19 UPDATE: According to Loop Industries, “We expect the joint facility to be commissioned by the end of calendar year 2020.”]
This partnership is only one example of the sustainable efforts being made by international automotive manufacturers. A number of such corporations have declared their intentions to rely entirely on recycled plastic within the next few years.
It remains to be seen, however, if those goals are attainable. At this moment, a number of obstacles stand in the way of future plastic sustainability.
Collection of used plastic, in particular, remains a challenge for those parties interested in recycling it responsibly. The process of recycling plastic—even of getting it into the proper hands—is exceptionally complicated, as the recycling process requires several more steps than disposal via landfill. UPS and GreenBiz, in fact, declared that the operational costs of plastic collection alone may deter parties from investing in the idea.
It seems that actively recycling plastics and creating sustainable alternatives to the materials would require a significant reworking of public recycling awareness. Not only that, but the corporations that have declared their intentions to forgo unsustainable plastics would have to make public investments in the practice for it to take off. While it seems, then, that the automotive industry is headed in this direction, it remains to be seen whether or not the practice will stick.
That said, the automotive industry is not alone in its goal of adopting recyclable plastics. The UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy is invested in the reputational benefits that the creation of recyclable plastic could bring. The department has proposed smart labeling as a solution to the problem of plastic collection. With appropriate labels and a connection to a database oriented to the Internet of Things (IoT), plastics could find their way to the appropriate recycling facility with little change to the way human employees do their jobs.
Perhaps this means that a future of smart labels is coming to the automotive industry. As it stands, the desire to operate more sustainably is there. Now, the industry only needs the means and the commitment to make recyclable packaging a reality.