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Automotive Plastics Report Card

Second Annual Ecology Center Report Grades Auto Manufacturers On Use of Sustainable, Non-Toxic Materials for Indoor Parts

In November 2006 the Ecology Center - the nation's leading watchdog on toxic chemicals in cars - released its second annual “Automotive Plastics Report,” which grades the country’s eight leading car manufacturers on their plastics policies and practices. Although all companies can still make great strides in order to be completely safe for the environment and public health, Ford and Honda have made significant improvements since last year, joining Toyota as leaders in the movement toward using sustainable plastics in indoor auto parts.

Download the 2006 Automotive Plastics Report:

Report Cover

According to the American Plastics Council, the average vehicle uses 250 lbs of plastic. A significant proportion of this is used to make interior auto parts such as seat cushions, armrests, steering wheels, wire insulation and dashboards. Many of these plastics are made with harmful chemical additives, such as phthalates in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These additives off-gas and leach from plastic parts contaminating the air and dust inside vehicles, putting drivers and passengers at risk. Many of the plastics are also not easily recycled and therefore usually end up in landfills or incinerators where their chemical additives contaminate the land, water and air. Incinerating these chemicals creates dangerous byproducts including dioxin, a carcinogen that is linked to serious reproductive, development and immune system problems.

The “2006 Automotive Plastics Report” focused on three areas in which some automakers are making significant progress, including: 1) Use of bio-based materials; 2) Improving interior air quality; and 3) Reducing the use of PVC.

“Ford, Honda and Toyota’s leading edge efforts in the use of bio-based materials, improving interior air quality and reducing PVC clearly put them ahead of the pack,” said report author Claudette Juska of the Ecology Center. “These issues are important to consumers and show a broader commitment to healthier, more sustainable vehicles.”

Grades for Bio-Based Materials

BIO-BASED MATERIALS: Automakers have stepped up their efforts to use bio-based materials that reduce petroleum use, life-cycle carbon emissions and vehicle weight. Toyota has lead this movement by pioneering the development of an “Eco Plastic” made from sugar cane or corn, and building a pilot plant to produce it. DaimlerChrysler increased the use of renewable materials in some vehicles by up to 98% over previous models by using natural materials such as flax and abaca fibers. Ford has developed a soy-based foam, and will soon begin using a bio-fabric for seating.

Grades For Interior Air Quality

INTERIOR AIR QUALITY: Plastic components contain chemical additives that off-gas and contribute to “new car smell.” When inhaled these chemicals can cause strong allergic reactions as well as serious long-term health problems. Ford is the only automaker that has certified vehicles (4 so far) using an independent, third party certification standard for interior air quality the TUV Rheinland Group’s “Allergy-Free” standard. This standard targets a broad set of persistent, toxic chemicals that have adverse effects on the environment and human health. Toyota has set a goal to reduce in-cabin volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in all vehicles globally by 2010, however they did not say to what levels they will be reduced. Honda and Nissan are also reducing in-cabin VOC’s in order to comply with the voluntary Japanese Auto Manufacturers Association agreement.

Summary of Grades

PVC: PVC is difficult to recycle and contains dangerous chemical additives. Honda has set a goal to “apply PVC-free applications across its entire North American product line wherever feasible.” The company has already removed PVC from most applications, demonstrating that virtually PVC-free vehicles are possible to manufacture. Hyundai, Toyota and DaimlerChrysler have provided examples of some indoor auto parts that have been replaced with PVC-free alternatives in certain vehicle lines, however they have not provided quantitative measures of progress.

Summary of Grades

OVERALL GRADES: While some car companies have made improvements from last year regarding their use of sustainable plastics, they still have a long way to go. Following are how they ranked overall in the 2006 report. Together these manufacturers account for 94% of total vehicle sales in the U.S.

RECOMMENDATIONS: In order to reduce the environmental and human health impacts from plastic materials used in vehicles the report recommends that automakers:

  • Increase the use of sustainably-sourced bio-based materials;
  • Certify all vehicles to an interior air quality standard; and
  • Accelerate efforts to eliminate problematic halogenated substances, such as PVC and brominated flame retardants.

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