© Dreamstime.com

International Automotive Components (IAC), a Tier One supplier to the automotive industry, has been using recycled plastics in the automotive interior components it manufactures since the company was founded in 2006, says Susan Kozora, director of advanced engineering for the company. She adds that the “use of recyclates is part of the long line of experience from the companies who contributed to IAC’s heritage.” However, Kozora says, the company’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) clients aren’t always so ready to embrace recycled-content components.

Kozora works in IAC’s Southfield, Michigan, North American headquarters. The company’s global headquarters are in Luxembourg. IAC is the third-largest automotive interior components supplier in the world by market share and the only global supplier solely focused on interiors. Its products include door and trim systems; instrument panels, consoles and cockpits; flooring and acoustic systems; headliner and overhead systems; and complementary exterior components.

“IAC’s interest in using recycled content comes from our desire to do the right thing and provide green, environmentally responsible products that our OEM customers and automotive customers require,” she says. “Recycled materials can also provide a more stable cost structure as they are not as heavily influenced by the sometimes volatile petroleum market.”

Changing minds

Kozora says, “IAC has and continues to meet all product quality and performance requirements with the use of recycled materials, and we are trying to shift the paradigm that recycled materials are ‘cheap’ and low performing.”

IAC’s recycled material supply base meets ISO quality standards and best practices, she says, adding, “We meet or exceed the OEM specifications with recycled products.”

The company’s work to gain respect for recycled materials in automotive products has helped to change automotive OEMs’ attitudes toward this material over time. “I see that our OEM customer base has ‘evolved’ over time with greater acceptance of the use of recycled materials and [as] IAC as a supplier has provided high-quality, consistent recycled materials in our products over the years,” Kozora says.

Some of IAC’s customers now are looking for recycled content in the design phase of their vehicles, she says, adding that they “are encouraging and even challenging IAC in their efforts to use and develop recycled materials.”

Among the recycled plastics IAC uses most are polypropylene (PP), polycarbonate/acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (PC/ABS), ABS, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

In a year, the company consumes several million pounds of recycled plastics. “The total consumed depends on the type of material and the volume of the good-quality product on the market,” Kozora says. “For example, up to 70 percent of the HDPE is 100 percent recycled material, PC/ABS is about 30 to 40 percent, ABS is about 10 to 20 percent and PP ranges [from] 10 to 15 percent.”

She says this variation is because some plastics, such as HDPE, have more robust recycling infrastructure in place.

“IAC has and continues to meet all product quality and performance requirements with the use of recycled materials, and we are trying to shift the paradigm that recycled materials are ‘cheap’ and low performing.” - Susan Kozora

Overcoming hurdles

Finding consistent supplies of quality material in the quantities required for the automotive industry is one of the foremost challenges IAC has had to surmount over the years, Kozora says. But it is just one of many hurdles that IAC has had to overcome in its efforts to increase recycled content in its products.

Overcoming the prevailing paradigm concerning the use of recycled materials in the eyes of automotive OEMs continues to be an issue for suppliers like IAC, as well. “Automotive engineers still can see use of recycled products as a ‘risk,’” she says. “In some cases, given the choice between recycled and virgin—both meeting the same specification—engineers will choose virgin materials. This in turn requires OEMs to have a top-down directive to use recycled materials.”

Kozora adds, “Also, the more demanding the application, the less likely a recycled material will be considered. For example, low-functioning or nonvisible components are generally well-accepting of recycled materials, whereas high-functioning applications, like instrument panels, do not lend themselves well to recycled grades. Again, this is because it is seen as too risky for this level of performance, but it does not have to be perceived in that manner.”

Automakers also can expect recycled products to cost considerably less than their virgin counterparts, despite meeting the same standards and performance. “This type of expectation can bring to the market ‘low cost’ sources that may not meet quality standards, which may contribute to the aforementioned concerns with use of recycled materials,” she says.

Complications related to the recycling process also work against increased use of recycled content. For example, Kozora says, the use of mold-in color plastics in the interior of automobiles requires an extra and often expensive separation step for postconsumer plastics. Instead, she says, postindustrial sources of recycled plastics are used for this application. “However,” Kozora adds, “with the demanding color harmony requirements in the interior, it is often difficult to get lot-to-lot consistency in base resin color, making it much more of a challenge to keep the color to the master with this variation.”

This obstacle is related to another hurdle that Kozora sees as preventing more widespread use of recycled plastics by the automotive industry: dismantling and separating various plastics, particularly in the case of automotive recovery.

Recycled plastics also tend to be more regional than global in nature, she says, making it difficult to meet OEMs’ global design requirements.

“I see that our OEM customer base has ‘evolved’ over time with greater acceptance of the use of recycled materials and [as] IAC as a supplier has provided high-quality, consistent recycled materials in our products over the years.” – Susan Kozora

Designing sustainably

IAC is doing its part where possible to design with sustainability in mind. Kozora says the company takes many steps to do so, including optimizing materials for each application, improving product performance, improving product competitiveness and material cost stabilization, reducing shipments to landfill, using renewable resources and recycled materials and reducing part weight.

Regarding designing for recycling, Kozora says, “IAC considers use of monofamily materials—use of the same type of material in a design as opposed to use of multiple, incompatible materials in one component. This lends itself to a cost-effective method of recycling that can limit or ideally eliminate the need to separate materials prior to reuse.”

Ease of disassembly also is something IAC considers. “Design for disassembly helps to look at the end-of-life recycling of products to again provide a feasible method to dismantle and separate plastics to optimize reuse and promote closed-loop recycling,” Kozora says.

Engaging the supply chain

“Automotive material approval requirements are very rigorous, and they should be,” Kozora says. For this reason, IAC closely engages with its supply base.

“As with any other supplier to IAC, recyclers must go through quality certification, either through our quality audit or through a third-party certification like ISO,” she says. “We look at the feed streams, testing at various process levels, inventory, etc. We develop a customized Certificate of Analysis for each lot of material shipped to us to assure that we have lot-to-lot consistency.

Kozora says IAC’s material approval process involves a number of steps:

  • recycled resin evaluation;
  • early resin supplier approval;
  • resin property evaluation;
  • initial product mold trial;
  • an optimized test run;
  • resin approval at the OEM;
  • final product mold trial;
  • final test evaluation;
  • resin supplier approval; and
  • the product part approval process product.

“We have a good lineup of vetted recyclers, and we are always willing to look at new potential suppliers in the market.”

She adds that an established supply base is essential to the success of recycled material use. “It is critical to have grades of recycled resins approved at the OEMs so that they are available for use in new designs and where products can be launched with recycled resins.”

Top-down support from automotive OEMs also is critical. “Having the OEMs provide solid top-down objectives on recycling that are definitively communicated to engineering, purchasing and manufacturing communities will greatly improve and strengthen the use of recycled materials in the automotive industry,” Kozora says.

Benefitting from recycling

While there is no shortage of issues to address as IAC seeks to continue on its mission to incorporate recycled plastics in its manufacturing processes, Kozora says the company finds many benefits to using recycled content.

“In addition to increasing the green aspect and positive environmental impact on our products, we have seen benefits in cost, processing and a reduction in landfill,” she says. “It is the right thing to do, and we need to make sure that we are using our resources responsibly. It just makes sense to find outlets for the scrap our processes produce and, even better yet, provide outlets for other industries’ waste streams, like PCR (postconsumer resin). When we include our manufacturing personnel in reuse, people feel like they’ve helped make the world a better place. I think it also improves the image of the automotive industry when consumers see efforts in sustainability.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via email at dtoto@gie.net.

For more information: International Automotive Components, 248-455-7000, www.iacgroup.com