Handelsblatt Auto Summit 2021: On the way to a circular economy: This is how the car companies want to become sustainable

Düsseldorf, Munich Even if there is a lack of chips in vehicle production everywhere, the triumph of electric cars seems unstoppable. In October, their share of new car registrations in Germany was 17 percent. For the year 2030, Volkswagen calculates around 80 percent. The sports car subsidiary Porsche wants to reach this brand not only in Germany, but worldwide.

But the sale of many new electric cars does not automatically mean that the auto industry makes a significant contribution to climate neutrality. The electric vehicle will make the air in the city centers cleaner, but real sustainability includes the entire life cycle of a car – from production to scrapping after ten or 15 years.

Vehicle manufacturers and suppliers alike are therefore working on a number of adjusting screws to make the entire value-added process of a car climate-neutral and completely sustainable. How the industry is adapting to this new form of sustainability was the central topic at the Handelsblatt Auto Summit on Thursday.

There is consensus in the industry that much more needs to be done on the way to climate neutrality. In order to produce electric cars in a really sustainable way, manufacturers and suppliers are particularly intensively looking for new ways in the production of battery cells. The establishment of a recycling system will be essential for this. In addition, the automotive industry wants to convert the energy supply of its factories to green electricity.

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The reuse of battery cells is also rated as an essential component in expert circles. “Efficient recycling can reduce international dependency,” says Sarah Fluchs, environmental economist at the Institute for the German Economy (IW), describing another advantage in a new study. With high return and collection rates, the industry could already cover around a quarter of its own requirements for cobalt and nickel through recycling by 2040.

After that, the proportion of recycling will continue to rise because more and more electric cars are on the road that will eventually be scrapped. The automotive industry is betting that recycling rates of 90 percent can be achieved for batteries.

Ferdinand Dudenhöffer from the Center Automotive Research (CAR) in Duisburg is optimistic that such high response rates will actually be possible. “Battery recycling is going to be big business. That’s gold, what’s in there, ”said the auto expert. Therefore, all companies made an effort to get into the business as much as possible.

Focus on recycling raw materials

However, car manufacturers are no longer just thinking about recycling battery cells, but about all raw materials used. To this end, BMW created the “Circular Economy” division, headed by Irene Feige. “We want to massively reduce the use of primary resources,” she said at the auto summit.

Currently, vehicles at BMW are made from an average of almost 30 percent from recycled and reused materials. With the ‘Secondary First’ approach, this value is to be increased step by step to 50 percent.

BMW also wants to achieve higher recycling rates for plastics, for example. “This is the most complex type of reuse because there are so many different types of plastic,” Feige emphasized. In order to make extensive reuse possible in the future, BMW no longer wants to use composite materials. At the end of a car’s life, when they are scrapped, they are difficult to separate into their individual components and are therefore hardly recyclable.

Another example is the use of aluminum, the production of which requires a lot of energy. If car manufacturers were able to make full use of recycled aluminum, this would have an immediate positive impact on the environment and the climate. BMW expert Feige expects that CO2 emissions could be reduced significantly with secondary aluminum.

Daimler boss Ola Källenius

“It’s not just about CO2. We also have to gradually increase the proportion of secondary materials in our cars. “

(Photo: Reuters)

Daimler boss Ola Källenius is also pushing business in closed cycles. “It’s not just about CO2. This is the most pressing issue, but not the only one. We also have to gradually increase the proportion of secondary materials in our cars, ”said the head of the Mercedes manufacturer at the Handelsblatt Auto Summit. Today, only 30 percent of the brand’s new cars are made from recycled raw materials, up to 90 percent is theoretically possible.

Källenius now wants to quickly increase the remaining recycling potential. For example, all batteries in Mercedes electric cars should either continue to be used as stationary storage after their useful life or, as far as possible, be recycled. For this purpose, the manager has his own recycling factory built in Kuppenheim, Baden. The start of production is scheduled for 2023. Daimler wants to “master” this technology.

Daimler alone requires around 6.5 million tons of raw materials per year to manufacture luxury cars, vans, buses and heavy articulated lorries. In order to curb this consumption of resources, the Swabians analyze all components and materials in their vehicles and create their own recycling concept for each make.

Discarded cars could become raw material suppliers

Ultimately, discarded cars should become the most important raw material supplier of tomorrow. “Here I am cautiously optimistic that this virtual mine will possibly one day be the largest mine,” explained Källenius. The prospecting of new raw materials such as cobalt, nickel or lithium could then, at least to a large extent, become obsolete.

The Volkswagen Group has focused heavily on ensuring that the electricity for its own factories is increasingly coming from renewable sources such as wind, sun or hydropower. “53 of our plants are already getting completely renewable electricity,” said Oliver Blume, CEO of Porsche and also responsible for production on the VW board at the auto summit. Volkswagen operates around 120 factories worldwide.

“In the EU, we will convert our plants’ electricity consumption to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2023,” added Blume. Overall, the VW Group reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by around 21 percent between 2018 and 2020 through greater energy efficiency and by switching the energy supply to renewable sources.

More: Dispute over combustion engines between BMW, Volkswagen and Daimler.

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