Recycled plastic in the commercial vehicle industry: lighter, sustainable and equally stable

Reading time: approx. 3 minutes
Text: Juliane Gringer
Photos: HBN-Teknik

People are increasingly turning to recycled materials in the commercial vehicle industry as a way to save resources: BPW affiliate HBN-Teknik from Denmark is a pioneer in this practice. In this interview, CEO Oscar William Gunner reports on what his teams are working on.

Mr Gunner, is plastic a contemporary material?
Provided it is manufactured and recycled conscientiously, then certainly. I think there are a lot of misunderstandings here. If I buy food in a supermarket in a bag made from a lot of recycled plastic mixed with so-called bio-plastics then sadly, that’s at the expense of future recycling: because once the raw materials are mixed, they cannot be broken back down into their individual components. So in a way, the best intentions here have destroyed the plastic. Pure Biodegradable or recycled material would be a better choice here. And when you see images of plastic in the oceans, in my opinion that doesn’t mean that the material is bad – rather that people do not know how to handle it properly. Plastic is basically very easy to produce, saves costs and reduces weight. If I use it for a commercial vehicle, we can add more load and improve the climate footprint. At the same time we always have to look and see where it makes sense to use it: theoretically, we could build an entire axle out of plastic, but it’s right and proper that it is primarily made from steel.
As a leading global developer and manufacturer of composite material solutions for the automotive industry, HBN-Teknik has a pioneering role in the industry. What solutions are you currently working on?
For a long time now, we have been working on constructing trailer components out of plastic, which are traditionally manufactured from steel. So for example, we have developed the BPW air suspension bellows pistons out of polyamide. We are working on making other products lighter and switching materials in new goods to recycled materials. I see even more potential for recycled materials, such as in our GREENFLEX® mudguards, which is manufactured from high-grade recycled polypropolene: this combination makes it particularly shock and impact resistant. We have a project in which we recycle polyamide. And we are implementing development projects in which we test to see whether it would be possible to transform more parts.
How do you find new materials?
We work together with excellent partners, with whom we select materials for specific applications, or they develop the suitable materials for us. I see availability as an increasing challenge in the market in the future. The demand for sustainable material is growing so quickly that the availability is not always sufficient and that could become even more acute in the future.
How is recycling carried out? Are there new approaches here?
The classic method is to collect parts from vehicles which are no longer used, grind them down and then make similar pieces again from this granulate. Chemical recycling is a brand new alternative, which is currently being tested by the Norwegian company Quantafuel: plastic waste which cannot be further recycled, so which would basically end up on the rubbish tip or be incinerated, is re-transformed into oil via pyrolysis. However, this process is not yet widely practiced.
What do the customers think about these new ideas?
I have to say, they are not yet fully open to them. A certain amount of recycling is already standard in the automotive industry, but I think the commercial vehicle industry is still somewhat conservative. Of course we know: change takes energy – it’s always an effort. If we use other components, we sometimes have to go through the validation process for the product again. Nonetheless, we are motivating things towards using more regenerative sources , not only because they are more environmentally friendly, but also because we can save money with them. One of our suppliers provides a calculator which shows, for example, that by replacing a three kilogramme heavy construction part with one made from recycled plastics, the climate impact of the product can be reduced significantly. This are convincing figures – however, this transparency has often not been previously available. It is imperative that we create it.
Pressure is growing where environmental protection is concerned. How do you think companies can deal with this?
If we ask about how and why things are done, the answer is often still: because that’s the way it’s always been. We have to break through this barrier. In fact, it’s important for the survival of companies. Because otherwise they will lose the connection. Ultimately, we have to expect more and more statutory regulations which will have to be implemented in a very short space of time. If a customer calls me up in the morning and says: “Please only use recycled materials from now on!” I should be prepared for that. A lot of things in the market currently focus on price, but sustainability in the commercial vehicle industry remains one of the most important issues.
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