BMW has been operating a recycling R&D center outside of Munich since 1990, well in advance of the forthcoming EU Directives on End of Life Vehicles.
Although it is still a few years away from being implemented, the European Commission’s (EC) Directives on End of Life Vehicles (ELV) are already weighing heavily on the minds of most automakers in Europe. The first directive was introduced on September 18, 2000 to reduce the proportion of ELV content going to landfill, supplemented by a second one last October. The number of vehicles involved is not unsubstantial: up to 10 million vehicles a year in the European Union member states reach the end of their life on average 13 to 14 years after being first placed on the market, generating between eight and nine million tons of “waste.”
Although the Directives’ requirement that collection facilities are “adequately available” without specifying just where they should be located, there are a number of other measures to which the automotive industry has to comply, such as the restriction since last July of certain heavy metals in new vehicles. Automakers are also required to limit and promote the recyclability of their vehicles, and they must make dismantling information available for new vehicles. ELVs can only be scrapped (“treated”) by authorised treatment facilities, which must meet tightened environmental standards that then issue a “certificate of destruction” for scrapped vehicles. There are also certain recovery and recycling targets to be met by January 1, 2006 and January 1, 2015, while by 2007 producers pay “all or a significant part” of the costs of treating negative or nil value ELVs at treatment facilities.
The minimum percentages to be reached from 2006 onwards are 80% for reuse and recycling and 85% for reuse and recovery. These minimum levels are intended to be raised in 2015, when they will be set at 85% and 95% respectively. However, these targets will be re-examined by the European Parliament and the Council before they are put into effect. They will apply to all new vehicles placed on the market three years after the adoption of the new Directive, meaning they are expected to come into effect in 2008. However, they will not apply to vehicles with small production runs—less than 500 vehicles per year in each EU member state.
It is estimated that at present a car weighing 1,000 kg contains between 700 to 750 kg of metal. This means some 150 to 200 kg of non-metallic materials, including about 95 kg of plastics, that will have to be recycled from January 2006 onward, and more from 2015 in view of the increasing part that lightweight materials are bound to play in vehicle construction.
Commenting on these ELV Directives, Erkki Liikanen, the Commissioner with responsibility for enterprise policy, said, “I am particularly pleased with this measure, which should allow us, with the help of the motor industry, to achieve the ambitious objectives set for 2015 and do a little more to protect the environment. It is, in fact, essential for the manufacturers to incorporate recycling right from the development stage in producing new vehicles, and the industry will thereby demonstrate its commitment to producing safer, more environment-friendly vehicles, even if this results in increased production costs.”
One company that has heeded the call and has been quietly working away getting practical day-to-day experience of recycling is BMW. Back in 1990, they established a Recycling Development Center on the outskirts of Munich dedicated to research and development of all aspects of effective vehicle recycling. Known simply as RDC, it is the graveyard of thousands of BMW Group products, and is thought to be the motor industry’s only manufacturer-operated recycling and dismantling center. It works with the design and engineering departments to ensure that this research produces results that can be used in a very practical and cost-effective way in the construction of new models. However, the research does not stop there, but also includes dismantling methods and techniques; it has a fully operational dismantling and recycling facility where dismantling techniques and equipment are developed and personnel of recycling companies collaborating with BMW Group are trained.
The disassembly process starts with a dramatic salvo of shots as all pyrotechnic components in the car—items like the airbags and safety belt pretensioners—are fired off by remote control in an area specially enclosed to contain gases. Then an array of other specially developed equipment is put to work to drain every drop of fuel, oil and water, deal with glass and strip out all useful parts for sale or reconditioning before the remaining shell is squeezed almost flat by a giant hydraulic crusher.
Final ignominy for what little remains of the car is for it to be dropped into the back of a truck for the journey to a hammer mill, where the metal is sorted and unceremoniously shredded into palm-size pieces for recycling as raw material.
After years of experience, RDC has become a stand-alone BMW Group R&D operation, as well as being a certified waste treatment facility. Although its anti-production line is a smooth-running affair, car aficionados can find it disturbing to witness the destruction of highly regarded vehicles that appear to be fit for the showroom floor, but it seems there is no alternative. “While it is possible to market some of the models that have been used for testing, most of the cars we receive here for disassembly are prototypes,” says Guido Konn, a BMW recycling expert. “As such, they will have been fitted with all manner of experimental equipment, a lot of it several years away from reaching the showrooms. This makes them highly sensitive vehicles from a commercial point of view—we certainly would not want our competitors to be able to see them. And while the cars might look shiny and new, they are most likely to have covered 150,000 kilometers or more to test out different suspension system variations. In circumstances like this, the cars are in non-standard trim, so we couldn’t sell them anyway.”
It is therefore not surprising to see models being torn apart long before they have reached the assembly line. Along with the newly launched 1 Series, dozens more Minis, X3 and X5 sport-utilities, Z4 sports cars, 6 Series coupes and convertibles, 5 Series and 7 Series models, and no fewer than 30 Rolls-Royce Phantoms—worth around $10 million at showroom prices—have also been subjected to a systematic, almost clinical, process of disassembly that ensures materials for use the second time around are obtained with maximum ease and efficiency, and at the minimum cost.
“Being the first in the world to introduce structures for take-back and recycling in the early 1990s has certainly paid dividends,” says Konn. “We have around 100 official dismantling facilities in Germany alone, and a good network across other countries. This is not the case with many other manufacturers, and only Mercedes-Benz can claim to have an operation that is something close to what we do here.
‘”We have put a great deal of effort into incorporating environmental considerations into new car design. In effect, the work carried out at this center sets a global standard in this respect. It may not provide us with a direct gain in marketing a new car, but it does give us a lot of knowledge that will be of benefit in the future, when the product eventually comes back to us. We evaluate the recyclability of new material combinations or components for new models in advance of the vehicle development process, and as well as passing on the information we obtain, we can identify at an early stage any special tools that may have to be developed to ease the recycling process,” explains Konn.
Among the string of successes claimed by RDC are the headlights used on the current 3 Series range: despite comprising numerous individual components and materials, they take little time to dismantle. Konn also claims the fenders on the new 7 Series range have also been constructed with a view to being particularly easy to handle at end of life.
“The term ‘high-end recycling’ is particularly appropriate in the case of engines found under the hoods of current models. These are dismantled and many of the parts end up in the exchange unit program that is run from our Landshut plant, where 15,000 engines are reconditioned each year to equal to new quality at half the price. We also sell on all the wheels, tires, hatchback doors, sunroof assemblies, mirrors and lamp assemblies that we reclaim. However, catalytic converters represent the most profitable end of the business because all the precious metal they contain can be used again.”
As well as working on next-generation cars, researchers at RDC are also tasked to look even further into the future. Laboratory staff are already well under way with investigat-ing how best to approach the dismantling and recycling of the hydrogen vehicles BMW has promised it will be producing between 10 and 15 years from now.
“The ELV Directives set high targets for material recycling,” says Konn. “We support this, of course, but our plans to reduce the weight of our cars continually in order to increase their efficiency, lower their fuel consumption and reduce exhaust emissions do bring us into conflict with the requirement to reuse and recycle 95% of vehicles from 2015. This is a considerable challenge, but we will find solutions.”