Carmakers lead the way on recycling

The auto industry is making great progress in bringing recycling and circularity into its operations 

Home Life Sustainability Carmakers lead the way on recycling


You probably do recycling at home. Carefully separating plastics, cardboard and glass, often washing items before sending them to the recycling centre, packed in different bins, and generally doing your bit for the environment. 

At least, helping the environment is what we all think we are doing. In reality, much of what we send to recycling never gets recycled. According to recent figures from the European Environment Agency only 46 per cent of all EU waste actually gets recycled. Plastic is the worst offender, with the European Parliament reporting that only 32.5 per cent of EU plastic waste is recycled.

The reasons for this poor performance are complex. One is that China, which used to accept a lot of waste for recycling, started limiting imports in 2018. Another is that much waste gets cross-contaminated on the way to recycling centres.

Is it cost-effective?

But the most important factor is economic. Most waste is not cost-effective to recycle – and that applies in particular to plastics. There are seven different basic families of plastic, not all of which can be recycled and none of which can be recycled together. Even the most common bottle plastic (called polyethylene terephthalate or PET) comes in many varieties and colours that themselves cannot be mixed in recycling.

The cost of collection, cleaning and sorting is the main reason why recycling plastic is more than five times more expensive than sending it to be buried in landfill sites, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute, a US economic thinktank. At such a price, it is no surprise that so much of what we send to recycling is either buried or incinerated.

At this point we may ask is there anyone who is doing recycling well, and who could point the way forward? Surprisingly enough, there is hope from the auto industry. Once again, the reason comes down to economics: the carmakers have a financial incentive to innovate on recycling as part of the ‘circular economy', and that is driving investment.

Thinking ahead

At present, most of the carbon emissions that come from making and using cars are ‘tailpipe' emissions from fossil fuels. But according to a recent report from McKinsey, that will change as electric cars become the norm: by 2040, up to 60 per cent of the total life-cycle emissions from cars will come from the materials used in manufacture, up from just 18 per cent today. Carmakers know that regulations will require these emissions to be cut, so they are investing in recycled and ‘remanufactured' materials that emit less carbon.  

Getting this right is about designing for recyclability right at the start. Carmakers are beginning to design components so they are easy to recover and recycle at the end of a vehicle's ‘first life'. They are also ‘remanufacturing' defective components instead of throwing them away. According to carmaker Stellantis, remanufacturing parts uses 80 per cent less virgin material and emits 50 per cent less carbon than making new ones.  

Carmakers are also investing in novel recycled materials for both interior trim and functional moving parts, using anything from biodegradable steel fibres to materials made from agricultural waste or common plants like cactus, bamboo, rapeseed, corn and yes, even recycled plastic bottles.  

How far can this kind of recycling go? There was a glimpse of an answer at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow when one large carmaker showed a concept car made entirely from such ‘secondary' materials. Like all concept cars, it was not a production-line reality, but it did show how seriously big companies are taking the recycling challenge.  



Illustration by Elisa Macellari