Cars & The Circular Economy, How to go about it?

The circular economy model assumes a static technology situation. But what happens when new technologies and materials are introduced? What kind of circular economy loop would work with cars? And would the circular economy discourage innovating?

The steel from which most cars are made is very recyclable. But if you build a circular economy system around that, it assumes cars are made of steel.

  • The Renault Espace has essentially galvanised steel framework onto which there are plastic panels. It’s a hybrid technology. Audi’s Jaguar also makes largely aluminium cars. A lot of companies now make aluminium cars. Aluminium is also recyclable, so you need to find demand for steel and aluminium.

  • Then you get technologies like the BMW i3. It’s built on an aluminum platform and has a carbon fibre superstructure. You can only grind carbon fibre down and use the powder you get as a filler for other products. But a structure like that of the BMW i3 should last 40 or 50 years without too many problems. So you get all those trade-offs.

  • We’re in the middle of transitioning from internal combustion engines to electric motors. You can melt internal combustion engines down and turn them into new castings either out of cast iron or aluminium, but do you necessarily have a demand for whatever it produces?

How do we understand your circular economy?
What would work for cars? Are we looking at the circularity within one product, within one product, one in one industry, within one sector, within a locality, and within a region?

  • Close-loop homes in reuse and recycling. But what about reducing?

  • Are material innovations discouraged? Lithium, for example, is a classic with lithium batteries. But if you change the battery technology to another one, what do you do with all the waste lithium from the older batteries? From the current crop of cars? How do you accommodate that?

  • What area would the loop operate in? A closed loop needs to be more specific as to whether the loop should be closed within a single product type, e.g. mobile phones, computers, or cars. Or within one sector? e.g., construction or within one economy. And if so, is that a local, regional or national economy?

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ping @ivan

In the discussion of a circular economy one crucial component needs to not be overlooked: tires.

Tires are a major polluter of waterways. My son-in-law works for the local water district as a specialist on the health of the fish in the rivers. I asked him recently what the major pollutant of the rivers is, expecting something like chemical runoff from sewers. But he said “car tires.”

We all know that tires wear down as they accumulate miles. Bit by bit that tread comes off on the roadway until they get replaced. And that tread goes into the sewers and straight into the waterways, carrying all sorts of fairly exotic chemicals such as cadmium.

The good news is that tires do get recycled. But globally, there are over 1.6 billion new tires and one billion end-of-life waste tires generated each year. However, the recycling industry processes only 100 million tires every year.

Recycled tires convert into fuel, rubberized asphalt, flooring, turf and railroad ties.

Accoring to an industry publication, "tire makers are increasing their commitment to recycling. Tire makers are looking into changing up the mix of materials in their products, to increase recyclable and renewable ingredients. The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Bridgestone and Continental have announced intentions to use certain percentages of sustainable and renewable materials in their tires.

Goodyear said it planned to sell a tire to the consumer market with ‘up to 70% sustainable-material content’ this year. The company also announced that it had produced a demonstration tire comprising ‘90% sustainable materials,’ Chris Helsel, senior vice president of global operations and chief technology officer, said in a statement, adding that the company is making progress toward introducing 'a 100% sustainable-material tire”'by 2030.

Bridgestone set a commitment to increase the use of recycled and renewable materials to 40% by 2030; and seeks to have 100% sustainable materials by 2050, according to Sarah Amick of USTMA. Michelin has set a goal to achieve 100% sustainable materials by 2050.

But like so many recycling efforts, it’s not enough. But again, if there is good news it is that recycling is gaining ground.

From the same industry report, "A recent U.S. Scrap Tire Management Report showed that in 2021 about 71% of scrap tires were delivered to end-use markets.

Tire industry experts contend that expanding the markets for materials recycled from scrap tires will be an ongoing effort.

The recycling market “unfortunately has been not growing enough, and we are seeing more scrap tires going to landfill as a result.”

A separate challenge is scrap tires in illegal or abandoned stockpiles. In 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated there were over 1 billion scrap tires at such sites. Fewer than 50 million remained in such locations in 2021, according to the USTMA report, a reduction of more than 95%.



So true! I firmly believe that embracing a circular economy approach in the automotive industry, where reusing, remanufacturing, and recycling are pivotal, will pave the road to sustainable innovation and reduced environmental impact, steering us towards a future of resource efficiency and greener mobility.

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Hi Maurinho! Thank you for joining our discussion.

I agree with that. The circular economy approach in the automotive industry is a game-changer, offering a promising path towards a sustainable and resource-efficient future.

I am curious about your opinion on what innovative technologies and strategies can be employed to enhance resource recovery and minimize waste generation from automotive components and materials.

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The circular economy in the automotive industry has a big promise, but its success depends on navigating the complexities of diverse materials, evolving technologies, and shifting consumer preferences. A balance between innovation and sustainability is crucial. Embracing closed-loop systems tailored to specific products, sectors, and economies can really encourage resource efficiency and waste reduction. The ongoing transition from traditional to electric vehicles adds another layer of consideration. Careful management of materials, waste streams, and recycling methods will be pivotal in realizing a truly sustainable circular economy within the automotive sector.


While electric vehicles (EVs) offer a greener alternative to traditional cars, in my opinion recycling their batteries poses significant challenges.
The complexity of lithium-ion batteries, coupled with the scarcity of recycling infrastructure, makes the process intricate and resource-intensive. Extracting valuable materials like lithium, cobalt, and nickel requires sophisticated methods, often involving energy-intensive processes. Consequently, the environmental impact of battery production and recycling raises questions about the overall sustainability of EVs. There are huge environmental problems in countries who are exploiting lithium and the demand for this material is exponentially increasing.
As we navigate the transition to electric mobility, addressing these complexities and investing in advanced recycling technologies is crucial to ensure that the green promise of EVs is not overshadowed by the challenges of battery producing and recycling.

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Here from MIT is an interesting take on recycling EV batteries. Sometimes the old EV car batteries have enough left in them to reuse for other purposes.

Wow, quite a good article John. Thanks for that!
I am impressed with the story of Nissan using batteries from their EV to power Ajax stadium!

ping @Miki check these articles

Circular economy concept in any industry, as well as in automotive, is something that has primarily positive effect on well-being of society, environmental protection and socio-economic maturity of certain country or region. Usually, the care for similar topics is coming from countries and regions which already have established satisfactory level of economic welfare and overall progress.

If we know that automotive OEMs and it’s major suppliers are coming from private sector globally, it is very important to understand that governments needs to be active player in stimulation of mentioned concept of circular economy. With infrastructural and legislative support from authorities, combined with proper educational communication towards customers, companies will become more than motivated to invest in change of business model, where focus would be how to keep resources in use for as long as possible. In addition, with investments in new technologies, that would create additional efficiencies with effect on reducing of operating costs over time, situation is obviously becoming beneficial for everybody.

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