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Car-maker tests circular economy potential of end-of-life vehicles

Audi has accelerated the desire for circular solutions for its end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) by establishing a research project with 15 partners to improve the recycling of old cars.

Because few materials used in the production of new vehicles are recovered from ELVs, ‘MaterialLoop’ has been set up with specialist companies from the research, recycling and supplier sectors.

‘Steel, for example, usually ends up as structural steel after end-of-life vehicle recycling,’ the company says. ‘Audi wants to change that by reusing secondary materials taken from end-of-life vehicles in the production of new cars. Downcycling, which a loss of quality in materials resulting from the recycling process, is to be avoided.’

In October 2022, 100 vehicles were dismantled as part of the project. The targeted disassembly of individual components alone enabled the retention of high-quality secondary materials such as larger plastic pieces for recycling. After disassembly, the remaining car bodies were shredded and sorted into material groups comprising steel, aluminium, plastic, and glass, in cooperation with the partner companies.

‘The MaterialLoop project underscores our ambitious vision to operate a highly efficient circular economy concept for end-of-life vehicles, says Audi ceo Markus Duesmann. ‘It is our goal to recover as many materials as possible at a high level of quality and reuse them in production.

This will save valuable primary materials and lower the products’ ecological footprint. Simultaneously, direct access to secondary materials can contribute to increased security of supply. Raw materials would no longer have to be extracted.’

Although the pilot will run until the end of April, Audi has already put findings from the project into practice, including those for scrap steel. In an initial trial, six steel coils made with 12% secondary MaterialLoop materials matched Audi’s quality standards. Audi plans to use the coils to produce up to 15 000 inner door parts for its A4 model. The research suggests the proportion of steel recycled from vehicles can be increased further.

An additional outcome is that Audi has developed a guide for suppliers to explain how plastic parts can be designed to increase the rate of recycling in automotive production.

One of the partners is Circularise, a Dutch specialist in digital product passport software, which has provided all partners with a digital tool to trace the movement of all the materials from dismantling to recycling and consequently reuse.

‘Sustainability in the automotive world requires a greater understanding of all the facets of material selection and production, design, engineering, supply chain, component manufacturing, finishing and assembly,’ says Mesbah Sabur, founder of Circularise. ‘With digital product passports we can support traceability and accounting of the materials, processes, and impacts at each step of the value chain.’

Another scheme, PlasticLoop, uses the expertise of plastics manufacturer LyondellBasell to employ chemical recycling for Audi for the first time to recover mixed automotive plastic waste for the series production of the Audi Q8 e-tron.

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