The circular economy applied to electric vehicles

Published by on 06.19.2020 - 7 min

The preservation of our natural resources is one of the major environmental issues of our time. Maximizing the repurposing and recycling of existing goods is a solution offered by the circular economy. But how can it be applied to the automotive industry and, more specifically, to electric vehicles? Let’s take a look at the initiatives set up by Groupe Renault.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy is the opposite of a linear one, which dates back to the era of industrialization. According to this model, the main stages in the life of a product are the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, use and, finally, the disposal of the item. This model, based on intensive, unlimited exploitation of natural resources, generates a large amount of waste that causes significant harm to the environment. The circular model is the opposite, aiming to optimize every stage in the life of a product. The idea is to reduce demand for, and pressure on, limited natural resources by repairing, repurposing and recycling existing products and materials. The responsibility for these falls mainly to corporations, which have to rethink their product designs and production methods to respond to the issues of the day.

A concern at the heart of Renault’s commitment

The circular economy, along with the mainstreaming of electric vehicles and the development of new mobility solutions, is one of the pillars of Groupe Renault’s strategy designed to tackle three environmental challenges. Firstly, the fight against global warming with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the vehicle’s entire life cycle. Secondly, the preservation of natural resources by optimizing their use. Thirdly, public health protection by cutting polluting emissions. Underpinning this is the fact that, by 2022, Groupe Renault aims to cut its carbon footprint by 25% compared to 2010 and increase its use of recycled plastic by 50% compared to 2013. 

As a founding member and Global Partner of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since 2010, Groupe Renault affirms its commitment to the circular economy, and positions itself at the cutting edge of this industrial movement.

The challenge of the circular economy for automotive manufacturers

In the automotive industry, as with many others, raw material supplies are key. Dwindling resources and growing global demand lead to price increases and extra costs that weigh heavier and heavier on the industry every year. A circular economy, with its all-inclusive life cycle management, means that companies have a degree of autonomy, cost control, and reliable supply, all while preserving natural resources and the climate.

The special case of the electric vehicle

Although combustion-engine vehicles and electric vehicles can come together and have the same optimization processes applied to them for some materials, the electric-specific lithium-ion battery has its own chain of re-use. This is because the batteries contain significant amounts of rare materials like cobalt. Extending the electric battery’s lifespan through repairs, giving it a second life, and finally recycling it, are the central elements of the electric vehicle’s circular economic model. 

Copper recycling is also an important issue when it comes to electric cars. This is because they contain four times more copper than their combustion-powered counterparts, particularly in the electric motor and battery.

Nouvelle Zoe bleue copenhague

Practical solutions implemented by Groupe Renault

A long-standing, pioneering commitment

As far back as 1949, Renault innovated by implementing “standard exchange”, in other words used mechanical parts were reconditioned and used for after-sales maintenance and repairs. This meant that customers had access to parts that were like new, but which cost 30-40% less. In 2019, some 35,000 motors, 29,000 gearboxes and 33,800 turbochargers were fully reconditioned with the Group’s “remanufacturing” factory. What’s more, this resulted in 80% savings on water, energy and chemicals, all while preserving significant amounts of raw materials and natural resources. Since electric vehicles are more recent than combustion-powered ones, their parts are not yet commonly reconditioned, but the process is already applied to parts shared by both vehicle types, such as the R-Link tablets.  

Groupe Renault has also been ahead of the curve for some 30 years by fitting its vehicles with recycled plastics. Their next step was the 2008 creation of Renault Environnement, a subsidiary dedicated to the implementation of circular economy procedures, making it possible to give a second life to parts and materials harvested from vehicles at the end of their useful lives.

For more than 10 years, Renault Environnement has been implementing this strategy on a mass-production scale, making Renault the leading circular economy player in the automotive sector. 

 
Groupe Renault is more and more widely recognized as a pioneer and leading player when it comes to implementing the circular economy on a mass-production scale – in the automotive industry and beyond. It’s rolling out a one-of-a-kind circular ecosystem that began life 70 years ago and has accelerated over the past 10 years.
Jean-Denis Curt Head of the Circular Economy Division at Groupe Renault

A solution for every step of the circular economy

#1

Repurposing and reconditioning parts to extend lifespan

The parts sent for repurposing are in good condition, mainly from the chassis, and harvested from scrapped vehicles in order to repair other vehicles. This circuit is powered by INDRA, France’s leading automotive recycler, in which Renault holds a 50% stake. It allows the whole Groupe Renault’s after-sales network in France access to an online catalog with hundreds of thousands of parts ready for re-use. It also offers customers quality repairs at reduced costs and with very little environmental impact.

Repairs and reconditioning are at the heart of the electric vehicle battery life cycle, with a system similar to standard exchange in place for leased batteries. Faulty or damaged batteries are shipped to the factory, repaired, then stored in warehouses to supply the after-sales network.    

#2

Increasing vehicle use

Optimizing resources is directly related to the longevity of parts and also the broader issue of vehicle use. Vehicles are actually stationary for the majority of their lives. By making them available for trips and when needed, car sharing on a self-service basis optimizes their rate of use. It also offers users a flexible and affordable way of getting around. Coupled with an electric drive, this zero-emissions service clears roads of traffic congestion while reducing air pollution and improving quality of life. Developing this sustainable shared mobility solution is a leading ambition of Groupe Renault, which has invested in several electric car sharing services in Europe, such as Zity and Renault Mobility. The group’s electric vehicles are the most widespread in Europe, with no less than 8,000 shared cars on the road, most of which are ZOEs.

Zity Paris eiffel tower

#3

Extending battery longevity with a second life

Used electric vehicle batteries whose charge capacity has become too low for automotive use can be given a second life for approximately 10 more years in mobile applications or stationary energy battery storage systems. When it comes to mobility, Carwatt, for example, uses these second-life batteries to convert combustion-engine vehicles (mostly technical machines like airport baggage carts) into electric vehicles. Or, in a very different context, Black Swan, the first all-electric boat soon to be launched on Paris’ Seine river. When it comes to stationary energy storage applications, used electric batteries are used to store variable renewable energy from sources such as solar power and wind power, like at the ongoing trial on the Portuguese island of Porto Santo. These measures can be built into an eco-designed building or, on a larger scale, integrated into the development of smart grids.

#4

Using of recycled materials and recycling after use

Recycled polymer scheme

Once vehicles are deemed no longer usable, their materials are recycled and fed into the production of new vehicles (closed loop) or into other industries (open loop). Renault also uses recycled materials from other industries in the production of new vehicles.

For example, for closed-loop recycling of polypropylene, Gaïa (a wholly-owned Groupe Renault subsidiary) uses the INDRA network to recover materials like bumpers from scrapped vehicles. They are ground down into granulates and then used to produce new parts (interior trim or external accessories for example) for combustion-engine or electric vehicles. Every New ZOE contains 22.5 kg of recycled plastic.

Closed-loop recycling can also be applied to factory waste such as canvas offcuts, which are salvaged to make seatbelts. By adding plastic bottle fibers, Renault has worked with Les Filatures du Parc and Adient Fabrics France to develop an innovative fabric – made entirely from these recycled materials – that can be found in New ZOE. This closed-loop manufacturing process has a carbon footprint 60% lower than that of the standard manufacturing process.

Copper gets recycled, too. Some of the copper from the electric wiring harvested from scrapped vehicles gets shipped back by the INDRA network to Renault foundries to produce copper-containing parts. The rest supplies the copper foundries for automotive or other uses.   

Lastly, the electric vehicle battery is also involved in the recycling process, with more than 60% of its materials (by mass) harvested for reuse. More than 80% of the cobalt, copper, and nickel elements are recycled.

Ambitions: growing the circular economy for the future

In time, the mainstreaming of the electric vehicle will make it possible to have the equivalent resource optimization chains and processes that are already established for combustion-engine vehicles, such as remanufacturing. 

When it comes to recycling, by 2022 Groupe Renault has pledged to increase its use of recycled plastic by 50% compared to 2013, to bring it to 64,000 tons per year. To hit this target, it will extend the use of this type of material outside of Europe, to markets like China, India, Turkey, and Brazil. Renault also runs research programs with the goal of implementing the closed-loop recycling of copper harvested from electric motors and of critical battery components.

 

*Neither atmospheric emissions of CO2 nor pollutants while driving (excluding wear parts).

Copyrights : anyaberkut, OHM Frithjof, Frithjof Ohm INCL. Pretzsch, LEMAL Jean-Brice, Planimonteur, Groupe Renault