Car manufacturers seek to pass sustainability with recycled vehicles or second-hand batteries

A car factory from which 100% new vehicles do not come out; and low-emission models that actually have components with miles on them. That is the strategy being followed by the big car companies which, in full manufacturing crisis due to the lack of microchips in the market and before the requirements to achieve emission neutrality in 2050, are obliged to reduce the environmental impact of their production chain.

Lack of microchips, factory shutdown... the automobile sector fears that in 2022 the ERTE will become ERE

Lack of microchips, factory shutdown... the automobile sector fears that in 2022 the ERTE will become ERE

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It is not a new or altruistic strategy. More than 20 years ago the European Commission launched a Directive on the end of the useful life of cars, which is in the process of being revised.

That Directive already stated that the States should encourage "vehicle manufacturers, in collaboration with materials and equipment manufacturers, to integrate an increasing proportion of recycled materials into vehicles and other products, in order to develop the recycled materials market.

Almost 22 years after the Community Executive set itself the goal of recycling, car manufacturers are on it. Then, at the turn of the century, there was still no requirement to achieve neutrality in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Instead, now they must comply.

A reduction in CO2 gases that companies have to achieve with electrification but also by manufacturing cars that weigh less, with manufacturing processes with less impact and incorporating recycled components, both in plastic parts or in batteries, among others. .

The rhythms are marked by Brussels

That 2000 Directive already requires States to report on the extent to which they recover materials from vehicles that are withdrawn from the market. In 2019, the pre-pandemic year, 6.9 million tons of the different materials that reached the scrapyards were recovered in this way, but that does not mean that they returned to the automotive production chain.

In Spain, that year, 92% of the materials of the vehicles that ended up being scrapped were recovered, below the 95% that was reached on average in the European Union, according to data published by Eurostat.

The European Commission is in the process of reviewing this directive and plans to publish the new text it proposes in the last quarter of 2022. This, moreover, runs parallel to its circular economy strategy. The latter "marks that waste streams must be stopped at their source, improving the design of vehicles, which would help improve the end of their useful life, in particular, encouraging durability and repairability, facilitating recycling and avoiding the circulation of toxic substances", explains Piotr Barczak, head of waste policy at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) environmental lobby.

From the factory to the 'ReFactory'

Brussels sets requirements and car manufacturers move towards recycling. All the big manufacturers have designed circular economy projects, whether on plastics or the reuse of materials. They seek to mitigate the dependence on raw materials, such as the lithium that is needed to make batteries.

These are goals that mean that at least part of the factory network has to be transformed. This is the case, for example, with the one that the French group Renault has had in Seville for decades, where new models are not produced, but gearboxes.

A factory, which has been renamed ReFactory, which has different lines of work linked to the circular economy. The first is not a technological innovation. In fact, it is a practice that has been common for decades, focused on the reconditioning of second-hand vehicles, intended for second-hand sale. Another line is focused on the repair of electric batteries so that they can be reassembled or used in other types of storage batteries.

Renault's third approach is linked to the recovery of parts and components, which return to the manufacturing lines. The fourth is not manufacturing per se, but research in R&D for the recovery of materials.

Renault's in Seville is not a unique project. The French diamond firm also has a similar one in the French town of Flins-sur-Seine. And most manufacturers walk in the same direction. The Japanese group Toyota is going to take advantage of one of its factories in the United Kingdom for a very similar project.

Components that can be recovered

Not all car components can get a second chance, but there are recycling options for elements of air conditioning, transmissions, cylinders, clutches, power steering or engines. On the other hand, as indicated by the sector, the most difficult thing is the recovery and direct reuse of the chassis.

The same goes for hybrid batteries which, in whole or in part, can (or should) be reused for storage. In this case, Toyota already uses, in its country of origin, battery parts to store electricity for uses other than the automotive industry. In the United States, the Asian multinational plugged in several years ago, together with local companies, a storage system with recycled components in the Yellowstone natural park.

In many recycling projects, car companies do not go alone. Audi, which is part of the Volkswagen group, supports its research at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, which does research to reuse plastic components, reduce waste, chemical impact, its environmental footprint and also costs.

Some companies also break down how many recycled elements are in the models they are already selling. Peugeot, which is part of the Stellantis consortium (the former PSA) claims that the 508 model, on average, has more than 30% recycled components or natural raw materials, for example, in the fibers of upholstery textiles .

One of the keys to the future, points out the person in charge of waste policy at the European Environmental Bureau, would be the implementation of a "product passport", containing the complete list of materials, their durability, repair capacity, environmental footprint, or a breakdown of all chemicals because, in the end, not all of them will be able to be reused.

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