'New territory for us': How BMW is embedding circular economy principles to accelerate the low-carbon transition

EXCLUSIVE: BMW's VP for sustainability and mobility Dr Thomas Becker has spoken exclusively to edie about its new climate and circular economy commitments, stating that the company "will not get on a Paris-compliant pathway" without recycling and reusing materials.

Pictured: The i Vision Circular concept car is made using only recycled, reused and renewable materials, but it could be some time before a vehicle with these specs hits the commercial market. Image: BMW 

Pictured: The i Vision Circular concept car is made using only recycled, reused and renewable materials, but it could be some time before a vehicle with these specs hits the commercial market. Image: BMW 

Late last week, the German automaker announced that it has signed up to the UN’s Race to Zero initiative, designed to build momentum for strengthened climate targets across the world ahead of COP26. Business supporters of the initiative must be working towards credible net-zero targets by 2050 at the latest; the scheme updated its target-setting requirements earlier this year following concerns about potential greenwashing.

BMW, therefore, announced a new target to halve the emissions generated by its vehicles while driving by 2030. This source of emissions accounts for 70% of the company’s entire greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint across all scopes. A 2019 baseline was chosen for the target.

Another new target was set, to reduce life-cycle emissions per vehicle by 40% within the same timeframe.

With BMW having already reduced direct emissions from manufacturing by 70% since 2006; achieved 100% renewable electricity across all direct manufacturing and battery suppliers; and increasingly electrified its portfolio, another key source of life-cycle emissions remains – material use.

“We will not get on a Paris-compliant pathway just by replacing energy in primary consumption,” BMW’s Becker tells edie. “The circular economy is absolutely necessary for companies with climate targets that cover the supply chain, as ours do.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation revealed in 2019 that 45% of global annual emissions cannot be addressed by decarbonising energy. Instead, a move away from the linear take-make-dispose economic model will be needed to address these material-related emissions.

At a company level, there are sizeable, material-specific emissions reductions to be had. Recycled aluminium can have a carbon footprint up to 80% lower than virgin. The disparity lies at 70% for plastic and 68% for glass.

Two-pronged approach

To that end, BMW’s new climate targets last week were accompanied by an ambition to increase the proportion of recycled and reused materials across the company’s vehicle portfolio to 50% this decade, up from 30% at present. Becker outlines why this is a “huge challenge” that will not be “as easy as it seems”. A key statistic is that less than 10% of the plastics and the glasses used by BMW are currently from recycled sources.

To Becker’s mind, solving the challenge will require a twofold approach – changing design principles for the long-term while supporting innovative recycling technologies in the meantime.

Vehicles have historically not been designed with component recyclability or reusability in mind, for one. As has been the case with electronics and electricals manufacturers, carmakers have increasingly made vehicles with components that are difficult to remove from one another and which often contain a blend of materials. “For the sake of saving weight, we’ve been using composite materials for some 20 years –combinations of different kinds of steel and plastics have become ever-more complex,” Becker summarises.

Going forward, BMW designers will need to follow a ‘circular design’ concept, developed to ensure that used vehicles can be disassembled and all components reused and recycled. Shifting to mono-material components will be key.

But, of course, it will be some years before vehicles designed in line with the concept go on sale. For now, the concept has been followed for a one-off concept car, the I Vision Circular, which is on show this week at the IAA Mobility Show. That car consists predominantly of reused components and components made from recycled materials, with a small portion coming from raw materials certified as renewable.

Becker, therefore, sees “mobilising technology competency” in the recycling industry as necessary to prevent components from vehicles that already exist – and which will be manufactured in the coming months - from ending up in landfill, or from being downcycled. He attributes the fact that “material which comes out of today’s shredders is not automotive grade” to the recycling technologies as well as to composite materials; 98% of car components from the brand that are recycled are presently downcycled, with common second-life uses including construction materials.

BMW has chosen to partner with BASF and ALBA Group to scale innovative recycling technologies. The former partnership will address plastic and, the latter, glass, with both trialling chemical processes that could enable ‘car-to-car’ recycling. Answering edie’s question as to whether these innovations could truly be considered sustainable solutions, when chemical recycling often requires more energy than mechanical and can result in by-products, Becker promises that the full environmental impacts of the solutions will be considered.

Embedded in strategy  

Asked why BMW has not set a target for bringing a car with 100% reused or recycled materials to market, Becker explains: “For us, the approach of changing the default logic to a recycled material first... will set a lot of things in motion. But change will come over time and it will trickle down from the very big pieces, like the cast aluminium sheet metal parts, to the tiny parts.

“In order to have an impact in a company, it is better to say ‘I expect us to reach 50% while I am still at this company and you are too’, than to leave a 100% target to your successor’s successor.

“This is not just a vision – it is about objectives measured every year, with you, as managers, measured against them every year.”

He also emphasises the importance of properly engaging staff across the business and the supply chain with the new targets as a strategic priority, adding: “[I am] only part of the strategy function; at the end of the day, the work is done in the different divisions.

“We have close partnerships with people in purchasing, R&D, HR and production, as much as in finance. It’s a network we are running. From our perspective, sustainability is really about integration into the norm of the business, and not about having a satellite somewhere in the orbit who talks about what should or shouldn’t happen.”

Sarah George



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