Karen McCandless reports on vehicle-maker recycling projects ranging from plastic bottles to electric vehicle batteries
As vehicle production numbers continue to increase, up from 11.9m in 2013 to 17m in 2017, so do the automotive industry’s waste management efforts continue to improve. The waste generated per unit produced in the manufacturing of passenger cars reduced by 13.6% over past 10 years, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association.
Figures from the UK underline the strides that have been made not just by automotive manufacturers, but also their partners and suppliers, in reusing and recycling waste. In 2016, waste to landfill was down 33.7%, while almost 90% of waste was recycled, according to the SMMT’s 2017 UK Automotive Sustainability Report.
Bridget Burnell, global manager for sustainability at General Motors, explains that the company is working with internal business partners and through supplier networks to change how they think about material sourcing and recycled content in its products. “We also need to make the connections to the valuable by-products from our processes that we used to think of as waste, but now recognise as resources out of place,” Burnell says.
Adoption of circular economy principles
The automotive industry needs to look for new opportunities to repurpose, reuse or recycle materials if it is to continue the upward curve. The sector has traditionally relied heavily on raw materials, such as precious metals, which are a dwindling resource. For example, the automotive industry uses more lead than any other sector, yet experts forecast that reserves of the material will run out by 2030.
The ‘circular economy’ offers opportunities to move away from using such large quantities of raw materials by finding ways to recycle and reuse materials whenever possible, as opposed to producing new stocks, then disposing of them after a single use.
The Materials Marketplace, set up by US governmental organisations, is one such initiative that aims to help companies across different industries identify ways to reuse or exchange waste materials via an online database.
“The Materials Marketplaces that are being established on state and national levels create new circular opportunities through a broader network and reach,” says Burnell. “These platforms allow us to post items where potential users can search for materials and indicate interest. Communication is then facilitated through the Marketplace and, hopefully, a use agreement can be made. This is a great tool to help materials find use beyond our original intended purpose.”
GMs’ ‘Do Your Part’ campaign, targeting water bottle recycling, is another example of the circular economy principles. The initiative has diverted 6m water bottles from six of the vehicle-maker’s facilities, and the Flint community gives the bottles a second life as fleece-like materials.
“Seven bottles were used in each fabric insulation that covered the 2017 Chevrolet Equinox V6 engine to dampen noise, and six bottles help make an air filtration component used in 10 GM facilities,” Burnell explains. “We convened 11 businesses that make up the supply web in the campaign. Do Your Part is an example of how we can and have influenced the supply chain, not just working directly with our Tier 1s, but collaborating with multiple Tiers to integrate our plastic as a feedstock for specific products.”
BMW is another OEM that takes an environmentally friendly (and collaborative) approach to the use of raw materials early in the vehicle development phase, via lifecycle engineering principles, in order to reduce its reliance on non-recyclable and high-demand materials.
Up to 20% of the thermoplastic materials in its vehicles are now made from recyclates and these account for an average of 12% of vehicle weight. The company also uses up to 50% secondary aluminium in high-strength cast aluminium parts.
“We shape our supply chain and material cycles to allow us to gradually increase the use of secondary raw materials in our vehicles,” says Dr. Jury Witschnig, BMW Group head of sustainability strategy, products and production. “Wherever it makes technical, business and environmental sense, and is socially viable, we replace artificial materials with renewable materials. For example, we replaced the supports of door trim panels with natural fibres. These are used in the BMW i3, BMW 7 Series and BMW 5 Series models, among others. This is how we can make a significant contribution towards resource efficiency.”
BMW also integrates as many residual materials as possible into a complete lifecycle management system. “In China, for example, foundry sand is used to produce concrete,” says Witschnig. However, automakers still need to proactively collect end-of-life vehicles from their customers rather than waiting for them to take their cars to collection centres.
Closing the recycling loop
Closed-loop recycling is a principle that fits with the circular economy. It involves taking waste from one product in the manufacturing process and using it to make another part, thereby helping to reduce waste and production costs.
Jaguar Land Rover launched a project called REALITY in late 2017 to expand its closed-loop recycling of aluminium from end-of-life vehicles, which it then uses in the manufacturing of new vehicle bodies. REALITY is an expansion of the company’s REALCAR programme, which allowed it to reclaim more than 75,000 tonnes of aluminium scrap and re-use it in production from 2016 to 2017.
JLR partnered with recycling company Axion Recycling on the project, with the latter developing techniques to sort and separate specialist alloys from aluminium. Axion Recycling is working on sensor-based sorting technologies to help separate and improve the recyclability of aluminium alloys. It is also focusing on the viability of separating aluminium from other non-ferrous metals, including zinc, copper and brass.
Ford also uses a closed-loop recycling system at its Dearborn Stamping, Kentucky Truck and Buffalo Stamping plants, which has enabled it to recover 5m pounds of high-strength, military-grade aluminium scrap each week that is used in its F-series trucks. The system works by using large vacuum systems and miles of tubes to shred scrap metal into smaller chips, which are then sucked back into the system and routed out onto a specific truck according to the grade of aluminium alloy used.
The system automatically sorts and separates the different types of aluminium from other materials. The aluminium is then taken away for reprocessing by the supplier. Once it has been melted down to remove any impurities, it is reshaped into coils and returned to the Ford facilities to be used in the manufacturing of F-series trucks.
Recyclable plastic use
With the focus on reducing weight, automotive manufacturers are using more plastic in the cars they produce, with much of this being recycled material.
GM, and a group of companies gathered by the non-profit Lonely Whale Foundation, are collaborating to address ocean plastics and create opportunities to improve vital ocean ecosystems. These businesses established NextWave, an open-source initiative working to develop the first commercial-scale ocean bound plastics supply chain.
“General Motors, along with Dell, Trek Bicycle, Interface, Van de Sant, Humanscale, Bureo and Herman Miller, are collaborating to help develop a model that reduces plastic pollution at scale and ensures the resulting supply chain has the infrastructure and support to meet demand in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” says Burnell.
From 2025, Volvo Cars has also said it will ensure that at least 25% of the plastics in every newly launched car will be made from recycled material. As part of this initiative, the company showcased a specially-built version of its XC60 T8 plug-in hybrid SUV, where it replaced several of its plastic components with the equivalent material containing recycled materials. Some of the innovations it used include a tunnel console made from renewable fibres, plastics from discarded fishing nets and maritime ropes in its interior, seats that used PET fibres from plastic bottles, and carpets made from a recycled cotton mix from clothing manufacturers. The company is also aiming to remove single-use plastics from all its offices, canteens and events globally by the end of 2019.
Electric cars challenge waste management
The rise in the production and sales of electric cars poses new challenges in terms of the use, reuse and recycling of raw materials. According to the European Commission: “[The] deployment of ‘green’ vehicles reduces the use of fossil fuels but increases the demand for electricity and certain raw materials, some of which are subject to supply restrictions and concentrated in a few geographical areas (e.g. rare earth elements for electronic components and fuel cells, lithium for batteries).”
The recycling of lithium batteries is one of the key issues for carmakers when it comes to waste management in electric cars. While lead batteries can be almost entirely recycled or reused, it’s a different story for lithium batteries due to their flammable and toxic properties, as well as the high cost of recycling the material. This means lithium batteries often end up in landfill or, at best, some precious metals such as copper and aluminium are recycled, with the lithium either being incinerated or discarded.
The latter is what happens at materials technology and recycling group Umicore’s industrial pilot plant in Antwerp, which recycles lithium-ion batteries in Europe for Tesla and Toyota. The company uses smelting to recover metals like cobalt and nickel but is unable to recover lithium.
However, there are pilots in place to reuse batteries rather than recycle them. One of the developments GM is exploring includes ways to reuse batteries as stationary energy storage solutions. “General Motors estimates that used Chevrolet Volt batteries can have up to 80% of their energy capacity left and be used up to an additional 10 years in a secondary use application,” says Burnell. “The company is working closely with its suppliers to strive toward full recyclability of all battery components, including cells, frames, wiring, enclosures and more.”
BMW tests new recycling concepts for innovative vehicle components on an ongoing basis at its recycling and dismantling centre in Landshut, Germany. The OEM has focused on recycling batteries and using recycled materials while producing lithium batteries.
“We promote the implementation of new recycling technologies, such as the recycling of high-voltage batteries and carbon-fibre components, through cooperation with research institutes and suppliers,” Witschnig says. “We also intend to close the material cycles in this area by using secondary raw materials in the production of lithium-ion batteries.” Power management firm Eaton also reuses Nissan’s lithium car batteries for home energy storage.
A collaborative future
In addition to working with the entire supply chain to ensure waste management processes are embedded throughout, vehicle-makers are beginning to collaborate with each other and with other industries to move towards a common goal. For example, GM and Toyota co-chair the Materials Efficiency Workgroup within the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment, a strategic organisation of automotive OEMs and suppliers organised to address sustainability challenges in the industry.
“We understand that automotive manufacturers face similar challenges and there are opportunities to work together through a common value chain to find solutions,” says Burnell. “We also recognise that many of our waste materials can be valuable commodities to other industries, and vice-versa. We are working through our broader networks to understand those opportunities to integrate and collaborate.”