1.12.2 - Vehicles and the Circular Economy

Version 4


    The circular economy


    A concept that was developed towards the end of the 20th century, the circular economy promotes an economic and industrial system that creates products which comply with specific functional specifications while using as little energy, coal, and natural resources as possible. These products are then reused at the end of their original life span.


    The traditional linear economy is gradually giving way to the circular economy, whose main principles are eco-design and recycling.



    Eco-design is a process that complies with functional specifications:


    • By using materials that are most appropriate for each subassembly, including recycled materials.
    • By using as little energy as possible (particularly fossil fuels) over the product’s entire life cycle.
    • By designing parts that are optimized to limit the quantity of materials that are used.
    • By designing subassemblies that are recycled at the end of their first life cycle - that is, reused in the same way or a different way, or remodeled using a minimum amount of energy. 


    It’s a systemic vision that goes beyond that of an object that is produced, used, and then discarded. Countries like China, the UK, the Netherlands, and France were quick to understand the importance of the circular economy and have proposed or plan to propose different framework laws and incentives, and in the case of the Canton of Geneva in Switzerland, have even enshrined them in the constitution! This shows there is increasing awareness that the planet's resources are limited and we therefore need to think in terms of ecosystems rather than open loops.



    Little by little, recycling has become an accepted part of people’s lives through community recycling programs or the search for used car parts in scrap yards. In reality, and especially in the case of cars, recycling plays a major role in the design of each subassembly, such that an end-of-life product can take one or more recovery routes: reuse for the same or a different purpose, recasting, energy recovery, etc.

    As a result, an entire closed-loop network has developed including material suppliers, car and car parts manufacturers, wreckers, and shredders.


    Making a vehicle lighter by replacing certain steel parts with aluminum requires recycling the aluminum as often as possible so that the overall impact is positive, given the enormous quantity of energy required to extract aluminum from bauxite (moreover, this extraction is a source of PFC emissions which are even more problematic than CO2).


    Producing recycled aluminum uses 96% less energy than producing it from bauxite.


    Likewise, using plastic instead of steel provides substantial weight savings. However, it's important to think about how to recycle this plastic 15 years later at the end of the vehicle's life cycle, when the composition of plastics and recycling processes will have changed a great deal. Since one of the difficulties in recycling plastics is their variety, identification has become mandatory in most countries. This could be considered eco-design of the material itself, and specialists such as Rhodia and Plastic-Omnium have conducted a number of studies to develop easily recycled materials, and to codify products that are put on the market for ad hoc recycling purposes. Producing recycled plastic requires 80% less energy than plastic produced from petroleum.


    There are significant advantages to many composite materials, such as tires, but recyclability is not one of them. Energy recovery is the most common solution. 


    Since steel products are among the easiest materials to recycle because of their ferromagnetic properties, they can be significantly lightened using adapted compositions - without reducing performance, of course. For example, ArcelorMittal, which provides 17 % of the world’s steel for car manufacturing, recently presented a C-segment sedan door that weighed 13.3 kg instead of the usual 18.3 kg. It should be available for mass production by 2017.


    And why not consider re-using entire parts recovered from damaged or end-of-life vehicles on brand new cars, as is currently done for vehicle repairs? Of course, rigorous monitoring would be necessary, but car manufacturers are open to the idea. In 2013, the highest recycling rate for new, individual vehicles was close to 20 %. This rate can reach as high as 30 % for trucks.


    A few special cases

    Electric car batteries

    Given the price of electric car batteries, the rareness of certain components, and the danger represented by illegal dumping, they were rapidly subject to regulations and conversations about what would follow the end of their first life cycle. A battery is said to have reached the end of its life cycle when it has lost 15 % of its capacity, which limits the vehicle’s range by the same amount. The remaining 85 % could nevertheless be used for stationary applications, particularly those associated with intermittent energy sources such as wind turbines or photovoltaic panels. It's at the end of the second life cycle that total or partial regeneration or even dismantling for components recycling may be considered.


    Some car manufacturers rent the battery, so it remains their property. They can therefore determine how it is recycled, in partnership with a battery specialist. 

    Electric engines

    The life cycle of an electric engine is often equivalent to that of its ball bearings, or thousands of hours of operation. Engines are recycled mainly for the copper in their coils, as well as the magnets which include rare earth metals or other substitutes that are just as important to recover.


    Electric and electronic circuits

    Specialized networks recycle copper, printed circuit boards, connectors (gold-plated contacts), chips, data memory, components, etc.


    Catalytic converters

    These are also handled by a specialized network which recycles platinum, rhodium, and palladium, among others.

    Can recycling be profitable?

    It’s an important question, and some key figures may provide the answer.


    In the United States, for example, the overall recycling rate is 32 %.

    56 % of steel is produced from recycled materials and 76 % of steel is recycled, which represents 76 million tons of iron and steel per year for annual revenues of 62 million dollars.

    Plastics generate annual revenues of 28 billion dollars. 

    60 % of the American production of non-ferrous metals (aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, nickel, titanium, cobalt, chrome, gold, silver) come from recycled sources and also generate 28 billion dollars per year.
    (Source: Patricia Laurent and Laurence Benhamou – Greenunivers).


    In the US, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is responsible for bringing together the different stakeholders and coordinating the activity.

    In Europe, the industry is organized by country under the impetus of each government and in cooperation with different related professions.
    In China, government agencies are actively piloting the process.


    In France, the recycling objective for end-of-life vehicles (ELV) is 95 % by 2015, with 85 % for recycling and 10 % for energy recovery (A. Montebourg – Minister). 95 % by mass have already been achieved for trucks.


    In a workshop led by Laurent Meillaud in October 2012, Dorothée Decroq (recycling network with close to 1,600 companies) indicates that more than 85 % of individual cars should be recycled in 2013. Jean-Philippe Hermine, Renault's Director of Planning and Strategy, indicates that the price of a guaranteed used car part is more than 50 % lower than that of a new part.
    [Reference: CCFA the Mondial – Recycling workshops: How to manage a vehicle’s life cycle.]


    Recycling and profitability are therefore perfectly compatible. However, manufacturers are more concerned with supply issues than the cost of recycled parts. This is why there is such a strong need to structure the recycling networks effectively, which some manufacturers have already started to do.



    The circular economy is making headway in all fields. For vehicles, around one third of a truck’s weight and 20 % of a car's weight were made up of recycled materials in 2013. Partnerships are being developed between car and car part manufacturers, wreckers, and shredders in order to develop recycling to the fullest, which will not only save resources but also create jobs.