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Move over 3-R’s: auto recycling and the Circular Economy

We all grew up with the 3-R’s when it comes to turning waste to resources – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most people think of the Blue Box when they think of the 3-R’s but those programs only focus on the last R – Recycling, while important, it’s the last priority in what has become a linear way of thinking Make – Use – Dispose.

A term like “auto recycling” actually encompasses a wide variety of activities. For Members of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC) those main activities (ie, main revenue sources) are the re-use of auto parts, and the recovery of materials that have value (ie, metals) for recycling. But auto recycling actually encompasses collection and logistics to move end-of-life vehicles (ELVs); processing ELVs to manage the hazardous wastes that they hold; shredding depolluted hulks to access their metals; sorting those metals in to ferrous and non-ferrous streams; moving those metals to be re-used in the making of something new; and those manufacturers who use the recycled materials. Who is the actual auto recycler in that ecosystem? All of them to some degree.

Like many things in this world, the simplicity of the 3Rs is getting more complex as we learn, innovate and respond to external signals for efficiency, cost-reduction and more importantly as of late – climate change.

Enter the Circular Economy (CE). The International Standards Organization defines CE as an economic system that uses a systemic approach to maintain a circular flow of resources by regenerating, retaining, or adding to their value, while contributing to sustainable development. Climate change and Net Zero requirements are driving a lot of activity in the CE world.

It used to be that auto recyclers were deemed to be at the “end of life” of a vehicle. We used to call the product that we acquired to break up in to parts and materials – ELVs (and most still do). With CE invading many aspects of commerce and governance, there is no end any more – depending on your perspectives of a circle – everyone in the supply chain is at the beginning and end. This makes upstream and downstream relationships so important for CE to work.

We witnessed that at the CARI – ARC Convention held this year in Halifax. What seems like two industries to outsiders is actually an inter-woven ecosystem that has more in common than what at one point in time may have separated them. As the CE has taught us – we all need to get along and we all need to interact.

There are now generally agreed that there are 10Rs that have been identified that provide different approaches to make a product or system more circular.

10R’s General CE concept Auto Recycling implications

10R’s General CE concept Auto Recycling implications
Refuse Make a product redundant by abandoning its function or by offering the same function with a radically different product Mass transit, cycling, walkable cities – all pointing towards less auto ownership. Not great for auto recyclers, but not all things CE are good for your sector.
Rethink Make a product use more intensive Design of a product to be more circular (disassembly, long lasting).
Reduce Increase efficiency in product manufacture or use by consuming fewer natural resources and materials Using recycled materials back in to new materials helps create demand for recycling.
Reuse Reuse by another consumer of discarded product which is still in good condition and fulfill its original function This is the very heart of auto recycling – re-using parts back on their vehicle. Insurers, repairers, OEMs and consumers need to remove roadblocks and mis-perceptions about used.
Repair Repair and maintenance of defective product so it can be used with its original function More and more parts are having their life extended through simple maintenance – headlights, mirrors and wheels are great examples.
Refurbish Restore and old product and bring it up to date Improvement of the working condition, quality, or functionality of a multi-component product to improve/upgrade a product or bring it back to it’s original condition
Remanufacture Use parts of discarded product in a new product with the same function Auto recyclers are one of the biggest suppliers of “cores” – parts that go through a disassembly process to make them useable again. Engines, transmissions – virtually any mechanical part is remmaned today.
Repurpose Use discarded product or its parts in a new product with a different function Electric vehicle batteries repurposed for energy storage is a great example of 2nd Life usage.
Recycle Recovery of product materials, where the materials do not retain their original structure Metal recovery of all kinds has been a huge driver of the scrap car industry as they are forever recyclable and prevent the mining of new materials.
Recover Incineration of material with energy recovery Plastics from ELVs are often times seen as great candidates for energy recovery, along with shredder residue. Applying technology to a waste can squeeze the last value out of an item.

I would like to add three more R’s, not so much actions but concepts that enhance the functionality of CE system – Reward; Respect; and Responsibility.

Reward – there needs to be the right financial incentives available to the supply chain to make the right investments and relationships. And ideally not government or even the OEMs. Once governments get involved in establishing incentives or system design – usually efficiency (and profitability) is sacrificed. And making OEMs solely responsible for system set means they own the system. In our world, the OEMs are great at assembling vehicles, but they can’t possibly understand or work with all of the relationships in an entire supply chain.

Respect – as with a circle, there is no start or finish, no head or tail. Each segment of the Circular Economy needs to have all of the other segments involved, consulted, understood – in the end Respected.

Responsibility – auto dismantlers are experts in how vehicles come apart to recover their parts and materials. Shredders are experts in separating out valuable materials for recovery. Everyone in the CE ecosystem for vehicles has a role to play, and they need to own that space. I use the term “own” in a broad way – they need to be that expert and continuously improve and refine their processes to keep up with and push their suppliers and customers.

Auto recyclers are often times called the “original recyclers.” They were recycling before it became a consumer standard. And they figured out how to make an industry out of other people’s discards that has been profitable and remains profitable. The Circular Economy for vehicles opens up more opportunities for auto recyclers, especially as electrification begins to take hold. For the most part, auto recyclers don’t need to adapt to CE – the principles and activities have been something they have embraced for decades.

Originally appeared in Recycling Product News October 2023

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