Automakers are shifting into high gear on the use of recycled materials


When passengers settle into the back seat of the new Ford Bronco Sport, they are unaware that parts of the car just inches away were once abandoned fishing nets, floating in the world’s oceans.

The American automaker, which has experimented in the past with the use of recycled plastics, has refashioned this net into a wire holder weighing only 5 grams for the sport utility vehicle.

“Although these clips are small, they are an important first step in our explorations to use recycled ocean plastics for additional parts in the future,” said Jim Buczkowski, one of Ford’s research and development directors. .

And, for automakers looking to reduce their carbon footprint, scavenging waste at sea will have to be one tactic among many.

Ford Bronco Sports

McKinsey, the consulting firm, believes that 60 percent of automotive industry emissions by 2040 will come from materials used in production – unless further action is taken to improve sustainability in manufacturing.

Currently, about half the cost of a vehicle is spent on materials that will not be recycled, according to calculations by the Circular Cars Initiativea group of companies created by the World Economic Forum to increase the use of renewable materials.

So while automakers continue to look for ways to reduce emissions while driving, a simultaneous push is underway to reduce them in the supply chain and then to increase recycled material at the end of the vehicle’s life. a car.

The ultimate goal is a “circular car”: a car that uses materials salvaged from older models in its components or bodywork in an attempt to change the linear take-make-throw production model. The ultimate ambition may be a “closed loop” system, in which materials are reused for the same purpose.

“We are looking at using recycled content, recycling it and looking at the batteries,” says Fredrika Klarén, sustainability manager at Polestar, the electric brand spun off from Sweden’s Volvo. “If we can’t make them ‘circular’, then we can’t do electrification in a sustainable way.”

“The fossil-fuel car is the perfect example of a linear product, because the fuel inside it literally burns out and disappears,” she explains. “But electric cars can be more circular, because you charge them.”

Using recycled materials is a key way to reduce emissions in the supply chain, while avoiding waste of products that reach the end of their useful life. Still, it is a daunting task.

Modern cars typically incorporate between 8,000 and 10,000 different materials, says BMW, the German automaker. But, while recycling has become relatively common in other industries, the quality requirements for auto parts and body materials have ruled out the use of recycled materials.

However, new recycling technologies – which can, for example, filter automotive aluminum from other metals – are allowing automakers to seriously consider, for the first time, making large parts of their vehicles from recycled materials. ‘opportunity.

“Automotive quality is not a given for recycled materials,” says Thomas Becker, Head of Sustainability at BMW. Even a trace of copper makes used aluminum more corrosive and therefore useless for car manufacturers.

Nevertheless, BMW has introduced a “secondary first” principle, according to which suppliers must justify on cost or quality grounds the use of new materials, rather than recycled parts.

“The burden of proof has been reversed, in principle,” says Becker.

To try to demonstrate the potential of recycled parts, BMW built a bespoke model — the i Circular Vision — made entirely from recycled materials.

BMW i Vision prototype: one button disassembles the car, so each part can be removed for future reuse

Presented at the COP26 on the climate in November 2021, it aims to demonstrate the potential for recycling in a vehicle, even if only one vehicle has been manufactured.

“Steel, aluminum, plastics and glass are all the materials that have the greatest impact on the environment, and this is where we can reduce our carbon footprint,” says BMW’s Daniela Bohlinger, who designed the vehicle.

In fact, several automakers have now produced “vision cars” designed to show the potential of recycled materials. Bentley’s EXP 100 GT coupe, unveiled at the VW-owned brand’s centenary celebration in 2019, featured reclaimed wood around its seats and was coated in paint made from recycled rice husks.

Bentley’s Coup EXP 100 GT: The car uses reclaimed wood around its seats and has been coated in paint made from recycled rice husks

But Volvo’s Polestar has gone even further. It aims to sell an entirely carbon-free model – currently called Polestar Zero – by the end of the decade. “This car must be produced with renewable energy, but it must also be ‘circular’,” says Klarén. “We can reuse components or produce components with recycled content.”

At the heart of the conundrum of making a truly “circular” electric car is the battery.

Several car brands have already taken batteries from used vehicles to do static energy storage – the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam has its backup power supplied via a bank of batteries from old Nissan Leaf cars. “If we put batteries on the market, we have to make sure that they can be taken back or used for [a] second life,” says Polestar’s Klarén.

Being able to reuse parts in this way – or recycle them into new cars – will also require a new approach to dismantling end-of-life vehicles.

Beneath the door of the BMW prototype is a single button that disassembles the car, allowing each part to be individually removed for reuse in the future.

“I personally assume that the car recycling business 20 years from now will be very different from the recycling businesses of today,” says BMW’s Becker. “Today’s business is based on the legislative framework that was created in the year 2000,” he explains. “But it was all about ‘can you recycle it?’ It was not about closing loops.


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