Defra’s new programme builds on and embeds strategic principle 2 from their Resources and Waste Strategy – to prevent waste from occurring in the first place and manage it better when it does. Their goal is for a circular economy approach which retains products and materials in circulation for as long as possible and at their highest value. Their aim is to explore means of increasing reuse, repair, and remanufacture, in addition to design considerations such as lightweighting, to reduce waste and contribute towards Net Zero by 2050.
Data from The Use Less Group shows the extraction and processing of materials and the manufacturing process to make a standard combustion engine car contribute approximately a fifth of the emissions resulting from its use over a lifespan of 14 years. These are significant: global emissions associated with the manufacture of all new cars that were registered in the UK in 2019 was between 10-13 MtCO2e (Defra estimate based on evidence from The Use Less Group; the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders).
Modelling by the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the University of Leeds (2022) found a potential reduction to territorial greenhouse gas emissions relating to vehicle production of 26MtCO2e between 2021 and 2050, based on the introduction of resource efficiency policies. The modelling also indicated a potential reduction to global greenhouse gas emissions resulting from UK consumption of 75MtCO2e as well as reducing raw material consumption by 108Mt over the same period.
Meanwhile, the transition from vehicles powered purely by internal combustion engines to hybrid and fully electric powertrains or other alternatives is accelerating. The government has announced the end of sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030. This transition creates new challenges regarding reuse as well as the management of batteries, and it is essential that new EV models and technologies contribute toward the shift to a circular and resource-efficient economy.
The continued development, promotion and implementation of innovative retrofit technology is important for extending the life of some vehicles which otherwise might be scrapped. Retrofit technology can minimise a vehicle’s air quality impact and will help bridge the gap in the journey towards zero emissions by 2050.
Regulatory measures have, to date, focused on operational energy use and end-of-life, with targets for recovery and recycling. We have seen an improvement in the treatment of scrap vehicles and dramatically increased recycling and recovery rates. Data shows the recycling rate for end-of-life vehicles rose 20% from 1999 to 2018, with overall waste to landfill falling more than 95% over the same period.
In terms of reuse, the active domestic market for second-hand cars and car parts means vehicles are routinely repaired and maintained. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported almost 7 million used car transactions in 2022. Additionally, the sector has seen a rise in resource-efficient business models, including rental and car clubs, which deliver environmental benefits whilst also potentially reducing the cost of living. These business models are growing in popularity. Published data shows active car club members standing at around 300,000 in 2022.
Whilst there is evidence of positive trends regarding waste prevention in the automotive sector, there are continuing challenges. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency vehicle licensing statistics show the number of cars on UK roads is increasing, from around 24 million in 2000 to around 33 million in 2021.
Greater resource efficiency in vehicle manufacturing and use can be achieved by supporting the design of lighter vehicles, with the dual benefit of decreasing the demand for input materials and fuel consumption. Reducing the quantity of steel, aluminium, and other materials used has been estimated (Leeds University) to have the potential to cut carbon emissions by 8.49 MtCO2e over 2023 to 2032. Designing them to be more durable and longer lasting would also reduce the demand for materials and energy for manufacturing. The same study concluded that keeping cars in use for four more years could reduce carbon emissions by 9.15 MtCO2e between 2023 and 2032. However, there are potential trade-offs with improved operational energy efficiency and other standards. The emissions cited in the report are the result of a considerable amount of work that has been carried out by the University of Leeds to collate individual carbon footprints to an economy wide-model to enable estimates of national impacts from resource efficiency. It has been used to provide recommendations to the Climate Change Committee and underpins the UK government’s annual consumption-based emissions inventory, but they remain classed as experimental statistics and do not directly correspond with territorial emissions defined under the Kyoto protocol.
The benefits of remanufacturing components is also evident. This can avoid in excess of 90% of embodied material energy, emissions and demand on new material inputs compared to new production. It has been reported that remanufacturing can be twice as profitable as manufacturing. It also presents an opportunity to create quality jobs because, in most cases, additional process steps are required, including evaluation, cleaning, and additional quality testing.
The Vehicle Recyclers Association also operates a certification scheme for recyclers giving confidence, and warranties, to consumers and businesses in choosing used parts over new.