Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis, Automotive Philosopher and Author at SUSTAINABLE AUTOMOBILITY discusses where vehicle recycling is in terms of sustainability, and how this sector has been better prepared than most to contribute to the circular economy.
Amid the unrelenting drive towards greater sustainability, it is often said that auto recycling is already sustainable. There is some truth in this. Still, there is perhaps a bit more to it than that. Sustainability is a simple concept but widely misunderstood and misused. It is certainly not about ‘saving the planet’; the planet is quite capable of looking after itself. The problem is that our planet has shown – through geological evidence – that it can exist in a range of different states, and some of these we would find very uncomfortable. Current climate change is already on track to make several inhabited parts of our planet uninhabitable within generations. So, it is not about saving the planet, it is more about saving our ability to live on the planet.
Some aspects of sustainability are pure common sense. We know, for example, that scrapping cars without due care and attention is a bad thing, as is leaving them to rot on a hillside. For this reason, legislation was introduced to ensure that cars are already recycled around 95%. Even before that legislation, the value of materials and components in cars meant that they were already among the most recycled and re-used of consumer products, so the vehicle recycling sector has a long history of avoiding waste.
Avoiding waste and treating objects like cars with respect is important for future generations. Considerable resources, many of them finite, go into making a car. Wasting these resources on cars for us today would not allow future generations to enjoy similar benefits. However, recovering as much as possible of the resources that went into those cars and securing these for future products for our children and grandchildren is part of sustainability thinking.
Sustainability is about taking future generations into account in all our decision making. This idea has been around for centuries but was enshrined in the so-called Brundtland Report for the United Nations, published in 1987. How many generations ahead do we need to look at is open to debate. Some native American tribes suggest seven generations, which would be about 200 years. However, if we look back 200 years here in the UK, we find ourselves in the early years of the industrial revolution. Few people at the time would have foreseen the longer-term implications of what they were embarking on. However, we can certainly estimate the implications of our actions, say, three generations ahead. Also, part of sustainability thinking is recognising that natural systems are just that: systems. Thinking in terms of ‘systems’, the interconnectedness of things is also part of sustainability, as it makes us realise that an action we take may have implications elsewhere. For car manufacturers to build a car and then forget about it, leaving others to deal with any problems, is an example of a lack of systems thinking. Natural systems ‘hang together’, so our systems need to capture ‘value chains’: when you make a car, consider how it is used over the long term and what happens when it is no longer useful.
Bringing together businesses involved all along this value chain in such a systems approach is essential for sustainability thinking. In natural systems, the waste of one organism often provides food for another organism, and our systems can be very similar; without a car being made, there is no end-of-life for it and therefore no recycling and recovery business. Businesses relying on waste metals, thermoplastics or cores as input into their own processes are the last link in the chain, and there is now increasing pressure for that chain to become a loop such that these players then feed their product back into the automotive supply system, and so on. This is the ’closed loop’ or ‘circular’ economy now aimed for in countries like Sweden. This concept is spreading to other countries, and it is quite clear that the automotive recycling sector is better prepared than virtually any other to contribute to this as some circularity has long been embedded in the sector.
If you would like to find out more, please contact Dr Paul Nieuwenhuis at firstname.lastname@example.org