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Biomaterials can easily replace plastics in the automotive industry

Feature

By Duncan Clark, Head of Operations, Teysha Technologies

There are just short of one million Ford Fiesta cars registered on Britain’s roads to date. Each of them requires over 100 gallons of crude oil to manufacture the plastic in their interior, bodywork, crumple zones and engine parts. More importantly, this plastic will still be around long after the car has reached the end of its useful life – the 120 kilograms of plastic going into manufacturing every car will outlive the vehicle by about 380 years. This begs the question: is the investment in the car worth the environmental cost of producing this much plastic?

Car makers and car buyers believe not! Now, with many carmakers switching to electric vehicle (EV) production, significant gains are being made in making the automotive industry more sustainable.

Car interiors

Plastics are used by carmakers because they are lightweight, versatile and durable. Being lightweight, plastic reduces vehicle weight, which in turn improves its overall fuel economy. The Brussels-based trade association Plastics Europe estimates that 12-15% of a car’s weight is plastic.

Plastic components are built to last the lifetime of the car, including the textiles, dashboard, interior trim and exterior bodywork such as the bumpers. Others are designed to be replaced, including the floor mats and windscreen wipers. Mats, for example, are composed of polyester fibres and will be replaced after a few years of wear-and-tear. Polyester production is highly polluting and uses approximately 330 million barrels of oil per year. Common Objective, the global tech solution for sustainable business, states that 14.2kg of carbon dioxide is produced per kilogram of polyester. If up to 25 kilograms of polyester is used in a Ford Fiesta’s interior, that’s some 355kg of carbon dioxide produced in making one car’s textiles.

Seatbelts are also composed of petroleum-derived fibres. Safety is unquestionably important, so efforts to find sustainable bioplastics, which meet safety standards, should be a priority.

Plastic bodywork

Plastic composites, like polypropylene, are used in car crumple zones because they absorb more energy on impact than metals. This means that the driver of a modern car with a plastic crumple zone is much more likely to survive an accident than an older car with metal crumple zones.

However, a recent study in Nature Communications, the open-access journal that publishes high-quality scientific research, estimates that 100,000 metric tonnes of microplastics make their way from crumple zones and vehicle exteriors into our water systems every year. This may be from general wear and tear, illegal scrapping and damage left over by vehicle accidents. To put this into perspective, this is the equivalent weight of all 960,000 British-registered Ford Fiesta’s surviving in our ecosystems for hundreds of years.

Global carmakers are now working on solutions to alleviate plastic pollution, such as manufacturing vehicles using recycled plastics. But, will these efforts go far enough, or it time to stop producing plastic altogether?

The role of recycling

Global automotive companies have been experimenting with recycled plastic in their car designs for many years now. Nissan, for example, manufactures the LEAF electric vehicle, which is made from 25% recycled materials, and some 60% of its interior is derived from PET plastic bottles, making it a definite step in the right direction for the automotive industry.

To further this effort, in 2020, students at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands, proved that manufacturing a vehicle from 100% recycled plastic and household waste was possible. Plastic bottles and broken household appliances were used to flesh out the car body, windows and interior, most of these fished out of the ocean or dug up from landfill.

Solutions like the ones employed by Nissan and the Eindhoven students are certainly commendable, but recycling infrastructure in many countries is simply inadequate and would not be able generate the materials needed for large-scale car manufacturing. Efforts should now be focused on improving recycling practices, in tandem with halting plastic production altogether. This is achievable by switching to using durable, versatile and plastic-like biopolymers.

A biopolymer future

Biodegradable biopolymers, such as those developed by Teysha Technologies, are showing promise as plastic alternatives. This technology may eventually help steer the industry away from non-renewable, petroleum-based plastics.

The past six years have seen Teysha achieve a landmark breakthrough in its second-generation biopolymer. Made from natural feedstocks, such as starches and agricultural waste, this versatile polymer can be physically, mechanically and chemically tuned to meet the needs of the automotive industry. Crucially, these biopolymers overcome many of the challenges of existing biopolymers, like the fact that their hydrolytic breakdown can be controlled — and unlike conventional biopolymers, they can be made to biodegrade in nature and without using industrial catalysts.

All plastic elements of a car could make use of biodegradable biopolymers, from carpets to crumples zones. If every automotive manufacturer were to make this transition, the resource-intensive refining of plastics would soon become obsolete.

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