Europe automotive sector faces up to prospect of mandatory recycling targets

Matt Tudball


LONDON (ICIS)–The European Commission’s draft end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) directive could force the automotive industry into the world of recycled plastic content targets – and the struggle to find adequate feedstocks that comes with it.

Included in the proposed new regulation is a goal to ensure that ‘at least 25% of plastic used to build a vehicle comes from recycling – of which 25% is to come from recycled ELVs.

“Good luck with automotives” said Jens Kaatze, CEO of MOCOM Compounds, at the ICIS Recycled Polymers Conference in Brussels in November, adding that the industry had a “long, long way to go” to be near the recycled content target.

Kaatze identified one main problem as getting access to recycled material, as well as the vehicles from which this recycled material needs to be taken.

The automotive industry will be going from around 0.6m tonnes to 6m tonnes of demand based on the new targets, Kaatze said, but stressed the problem was getting access to the raw materials needed.

In Germany, 2.5m vehicles are deregistered every year, Kaatze said. These vehicles are supposed to go to a certified place to be broke up, but only 0.5m end up there.

“The majority goes east and south and extends its life, but my problem is the feedstock is gone and can’t get back to Europe,” Kaatze noted, adding that, “EU law says we cannot export trash anymore. But we also can’t get back the cars we’ve sent out because of that law.”

Kaatze pointed out that there are around 150-200 different polymer fractions in a car, and they are often painted materials or black. Current near-infrared sorting technologies are not able to detect these materials, making them harder to collect during the shredding process.

In addition, when cars are shredded at end of life, this is often done by steel companies as steel is the main component used in cars – and these steel companies are unlikely to be able to sort out plastics.

One solution put forward by Kaatze was to “get in front of the shredder” to try and salvage large plastic parts before shredding commences.

Collaboration with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) offers another solution, Kaatze suggested, saying that the OEM should help dismantle vehicles too.

The automotive sector is already familiar with using recycled material in vehicles, as car bumpers contain recycled polypropylene (R-PP), and recycled polyethylene terephthalate (R-PET) is used in car seats.

And while not all are working with recycled materials, some are already thinking about incorporating more recycled content into their vehicles.

Kaatze highlighted BMW, who is working with different partners to think holistically about how it produces its cars in the future.

The number of polymers used in a car should also be considered, Kaatze said, suggesting that the 150-200 different polymer fractions currently used could be reduced significantly. The plastics industry has trained its customers to increase technical standards of plastics, Kaatze said, adding that this could be challenged to help consolidate the number of polymers.

When asked if electric vehicles (EVs) and new automotive technology is impacting the recyclability of vehicles, Kaatze replied in the affirmative.

“The paradigm shift comes from a different end as everyone wants the batteries back.

“So if you get the car to take the battery out, then [you can] also take the plastic out. So more thinking [is needed] there on how to recycle. Autonomised dismantling lines go hand in hand,” Kaatze said.

The European Commission proposed the ELV directive on 13 July 2023, following a review of the original, which came into force on 18 September 2000. The proposed regulation will be considered by the European parliament and the council in the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’, according to the Commission’s website.

In line with the European Green Deal and with the Circular Economy Action Plan, the proposal for an ELV directive builds on and replaces existing Directive 2000/53/EC on ELVs and Directive 2005/64/EC on the type-approval of motor vehicles with regard to their reusability, recyclability and recoverability.

The ICIS Recycled Polymers Conference ran from 21-22 November in Brussels.

Focus article by Matt Tudball

Thumbnail picture: Electric automobile production at Volkswagen vehicle plant in Zwickau, Germany. Source: Martin Divisek/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock


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