Recycling in the motor world: Your next new car will be your old car

Carmakers increasingly turning to recycling, especially for electric components

Sending a car to the scrapyard these days generally involves you paying for the process rather than the scrap merchant paying you for the old bits of metal. Fluids must be drained and properly disposed of. The metals, plastics and fabrics must be separated and reused. Nothing, or at least as little as possible, can be allowed to go to waste.

Recycled components have long been part of the food chain of building cars, but recycling and reclamation is taking on a new urgency. As carmakers have realised, once you fix one issue to do with motoring – whether it be safety or emissions – critics will latch on to another. With emissions, at least at the point of use, increasingly being taken care of by electric power, car companies are getting ahead of the game by trying to ensure that the new cars they build use as much recycled material as possible. It’s both a way of pre-empting the all-but-inevitable legislation that will be drafted in the coming years regarding recycling and reuse in manufacturing, and of propping up the company’s balance sheet.

BMW's chairman of the board, Oliver Zipse, puts it like this: "In 2017, for the first time, mankind extracted more than 100 billion tonnes of raw materials within a single year – a trend that we also need to counteract in the automotive industry. Those wishing to use the Earth's scarce resources to drive their business model will need good reasons to do so in the future."

BMW is promising that the use of recycled materials such as steel, plastic and aluminium, will be "sharply increased with a view to minimising the extraction of primary raw materials." The policy is being called 'secondary, first' whereby recycled materials will be used as a first preference, unless quality or safety considerations mean that they're not appropriate – it's difficult, if not impossible for now, to use recycled metal for major load-bearing safety structures, for example.


Right now, the BMW i3 electric car uses about 25 per cent recycled plastics in its make-up, but BMW wants to ramp that proportion right up. It’s not just about making sure that you use as many recycled products in your car now that’s the issue.

Electrical systems

Actually doing so is relatively easy. Audi, for example, has said that the seat fabric in its cars will be largely made of recycled PET drinks bottles from now on. The tricky thing is to make sure that the car you're building today can be more easily recycled tomorrow, especially when it's an electric car.

“It is essential that a vehicle’s electrical systems can be easily removed prior to recycling – in order to avoid mixing the steel and copper contained in the vehicle’s wiring harness. Otherwise, the secondary steel recovered will no longer meet the strict safety requirements of the automotive industry” say BMW’s recycling experts.

So what proportion of a car can be made of recycled materials? Well, the sky is more or less the limit, so to speak.

Take Renault's factory in Flins, in the town of Aubergnville, just to the west of Paris. It's been a car factory since 1952, and has made such familiar Renault products as the 4 and the 5, the Twingo and the Clio. Today it builds the Clio, the all-electric Zoe and the Micra, for Renault's partner company Nissan.

Not for much longer, though. The entire Flins site is soon to be recycled itself, and turned from a place that assembles cars into one that disassembles them. Renault says that Flins will become a ‘re-factory’ where old cars will be taken apart, and their components, right down to the very raw materials, will be used. The idea is that by 2030, the work at Flins will not only be CO2-neutral, it will actually be CO2 –negative, as the work there will actually trigger reductions in emissions in other parts of the car supply chain, especially in the extraction of raw materials.

“With the re-factory, Flins will become a European reference in the circular economy. Re-factory will enable Renault to respond to the challenges facing mobility and automotive industry players today – and even more so tomorrow. This plant, with an objective of a negative CO2 balance by 2030, is fully in line with the group’s global strategy by combining circular economy, reduction of emissions, development of skills and the creation of new value-generating activities,” said Luca de Meo, chief executive of Renault.

Right now, says Renault, its cars have an average of 30 per cent recycled or reclaimed parts and components. However, there’s clearly room for improvement, as Renault says: “Ninety-five per cent of the mass of vehicles and their batteries can be recycled or recovered. This European regulatory requirement was anticipated in 2007 and is applied by Renault Group to all vehicles sold worldwide.”

The figures for other carmakers are broadly similar, but this goes a lot further than simply reusing old plastics for dashboards, or discarded water bottles for seat fabric. The recycling of batteries is going to be crucial to the electric motoring future, not just because it’s sound from an environmental point of view, but because there may not be enough physical raw material out there for all the batteries that we need.

Concerns have been raised, by entities such as the Faraday Institution, a major research group dedicated to battery technology, that there may not be enough lithium metal out there to be mined to keep up with the anticipated demand for electric-car batteries in the coming decades (on top of all the other rechargeable lithium batteries we buy in our phones, laptops and domestic appliances).

New battery designs

Volkswagen's operations at its Salzgitter plant, just outside the town of Brunswick, have so far been largely about developing new designs of battery cells, and acting as a pilot plant for a planned battery 'gigafactory'. Indeed, by 2030 VW wants to build batteries with a combined power output of 40 gigawathours, every year, on the Salzgitter site.

Salzgitter won’t just make batteries, though. It will also unmake them. Right now, VW is feeding old, tired, useless batteries into the mechanical maw of a vast battery shredder, peeling each battery and each cell apart until the original, raw, lithium, nickel, manganese, aluminium and cobalt can be extracted, repackaged and reused.

According to Mark Möller, VW’s head of technical development: “We know from many years of research that recycled battery raw materials are just as efficient as new ones. We plan to support our cell production in future with the material we have recovered. We really use every gram of recovered material as the demand for batteries rises sharply.”

The CO2 savings are considerable – VW estimates that by using ‘green’ energy (wind and solar) to power the Salzgitter plant, it can save 1.3 tonnes of CO2 for every 62kWh worth of batteries that it turns out.

Of course, that shredding is the last resort for a battery. The idea is that when a freshly-minted battery is first made, it goes into an electric car, where the usage cycle is at its toughest. When the battery becomes to depleted, it can be removed from the car, and either refurbished to be used in another car, or more likely reused in another, less stressful environment, such as Nissan's plan to use recycled batteries from Leaf electric cars as a vast 'powerwall' at the Johan Cryuff stadium in Amsterdam, the home of Ajax football club. The powerwall can help with the stadium's power demands at peak times, or keep the floodlights on if there's a mid-match power cut.

Other plans, including those made by both Tesla and Honda, foresee battery powerwalls fitted at home, to act as peak-demand energy buffers, and soaking up excess wind power generated at night.

When the batteries have become too old even for that roll, then it’s time for the Salzgitter mangle, and a return to their raw materials. Those materials can then begin the cycle again, as a new battery for a new car.