One company at the forefront of sustainability is the BMW Group. In April, the German carmaker announced that it will head up a new project to explore the circular economy in automotive manufacturing. BMW is joining forces with representatives from the recycling industry, commodity processors and academia to work on ways to improve the quality of secondary raw materials obtained from recycling end-of-life vehicles. 

Backed by $7 million from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action in Germany, the Car2Car project will focus specifically on improving the quality and availability of recycled aluminum, steel, glass, copper and plastic. In the future, innovative dismantling and automated sorting methods will generate far greater quantities of these resources to be recovered from end-of-life vehicles than has so far been the case. This project also includes an end-to-end evaluation of both the ecological and economic impacts of closed-loop recycling of these materials. 

“The successful transformation of vehicle manufacturers and suppliers is crucial for Germany as a business location,” says Michael Kellner, parliamentary state secretary at Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. “A stronger circular economy that conserves and reuses resources is a key step towards climate neutrality and safeguards supply chains at the same time. [The goal is] to make the automotive industry less dependent on raw material imports and ensure a long-term supply of raw materials for the economy, thereby boosting industrial value creation.” 

BMW has set a goal of increasing the proportion of secondary materials in its brands’ new models from around 30 percent to 50 percent. To help achieve this, the recyclability of materials is taken into account during the design process for new models. Rethinking how materials are recovered from vehicles at the end of their life is also important. The raw materials obtained from recycling can only be used if they also satisfy the carmaker’s quality standards. 

The BMW Group is supplying 500 end-of-life vehicles for the project, including BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce vehicles. Vehicles with combustion engines, plug-in hybrid systems and all-electric drive units will be recycled to produce a representative spectrum of materials. Consortium partners will look for ways to improve the quality and quantity of the recovered materials. 

The consortium is working out the optimum balance between the dismantling process and post-shredder technologies from a qualitative, economic and ecological perspective to retain as much of the value initially invested in the manufacturing of a car as possible. Today’s recycling processes involve a high degree of manual effort and result in a loss of material purity, meaning they are only economically viable for a small number of vehicle components. The Car2Car project hopes to improve on that. 

Digital technology and artificial intelligence will be used to automate and speed up recycling processes that have previously been performed manually. For instance, the dismantling process could be partly or even highly automated with the help of robotics. Vision systems, assisted by AI, could be used to sort reusable materials after shredding, thereby improving the quality and purity of aluminum, steel, glass, copper and plastic materials. 

To achieve this, the consortium will need to develop new technologies, such as AI-enhanced spectroscopy, that can identify different steel and aluminum alloys. This will enable suppliers to obtain raw materials with a higher degree of purity, so less processing work will be required to turn scrap into reusable raw materials. 

BMW is also leading another consortium project called Future Sustainable Car Materials (FSCM). Under its lead, research institutes and companies are working together on innovative process routes and material concepts for sustainable use of secondary materials and for reducing the carbon footprint of raw materials such as steel and aluminum. The use of secondary aluminum is a prime example of how consistent use of recycled material can cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

BMW is also carrying out important groundwork when it comes to the actual recycling of vehicles at the end of their life. The company is the only carmaker to run its own recycling center, which has been in operation since 1994. Up to 10,000 vehicles a year are processed at the Recycling and Dismantling Centre in Unterschleißheim near Munich. 

We hope manufacturers in other industries are inspired by BMW’s efforts. Assemblers of many large, complex products, such as white goods, tractors and aircraft, could certainly benefit from a more circular economy.