Gas efficiency is a top environmental concern, but it isn't the only one. Hybrids aren't just about mileage anymore. They're going beyond the power train to be eco-friendly all over, including in the materials that comprise them.
Renewable resources are all the rage in the auto industry -- or at least in one niche market. The car buyer who heads straight for the hybrid is often concerned with the eco-credentials of the whole car. That's probably why these eco-plastics are turning up in hybrids first: The market is already there. If eco-plastic turns out to be a cost-effective, successful feature in car manufacturing, it may someday become standard fare throughout the fleet. But for now, it's pretty much limited to the green market.
Within that green market, several carmakers are incorporating greener plastic. Toyota leads the pack with its Eco-Plastic, derived from several plant sources including corn, sugarcane and kenaf fibers [source: Toyota]. The 2010 Prius uses this plastic in several interior components, including door trim, seat cushions and scuff boards. The Lexus HS 250h also uses Toyota's Eco-Plastic in its interior. Compared to regular plastic, this bioplastic is estimated to release 20 percent less total CO2 over the life of the car [source: McCarthy].
In most cases, automotive eco-plastic is combined with traditional plastic to make car components, so its environmental impact is mostly realized when you look at the bulk effect of mass production, not on a case-by-case basis. However, in 2003, Toyota introduced the Raum in Japan, a car containing some interior components made from 100-percent eco-plastic [source: Vaughan]. So we know it's possible.
Toyota and Lexus aren't the only ones in the eco-plastic race. Most of the major players are looking to score in the green arena. Mazda is researching a biomass-based plastic that it hopes to start using by 2013 [source: ThomasNet]. DaimlerChrysler has for some time been using natural fibers like hemp, flax and coconut to make interior plastics more renewable, and in 2005, the company won an award for its use of banana fibers in exterior plastics [source: Daimler]. Ford has created a soy-based foam that debuted in the seats of the 2008 Mustang [source: IW].
All this competition for eco-cred can only help the environment. In an apparent bid to take it up a notch, Toyota is looking to work seaweed into the plastics profile of its ultra-green, futuristic 1/x hybrid -- a "post 2020" car that may prove to be well worth the wait [source: McDonald].
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