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Influencing the design of products to ensure reuse and recycling

Alexander Thompson – Innovation Project Manager, EMR

As businesses face up to the challenge of making their operations more sustainable, it is becoming increasingly important for different industries to collaborate.

For recyclers such as EMR, this means working more closely than ever with product manufacturers, alongside other supply chain partners, to ensure that everything from cars to building materials are designed with end-of-life recycling or re-use in mind.

The good news is that these partnerships will create the next generation of opportunities, as businesses race towards their own net-zero targets in the years ahead. For EMR this means removing all carbon emissions from our value chain by 2040.

More challenging, however, is the fact many manufacturers have understandably developed an ingrained culture that fiercely protects intellectual property and the product innovations which help them stay ahead of the market.

Nowhere is this more the case than in the automotive industry. However, this is an area that one of EMR’s exciting collaborative initiatives is taking place.

RECOVAS, a ground-breaking project which is part funded by the Government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre, looks to create a new circular end-of-life supply chain for the electric vehicle industry. The partnership brings together Bentley Motors, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, alongside the University of Warwick, the Health and Safety Executive, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, Autocraft and Connected Energy.

RECOVAS is creating a path for the re-manufacturing, re-use or recycling of the resource-rich batteries which are powering the transition to electric vehicles.

The benefits of working closely with leading car manufacturers extends beyond the scope of this single project, however. By building relationships between their design teams and EMR’s engineers, we have begun to see more proactive discussions about how different parts of the supply chain can work together more effectively.

One example is the way in which glues are used in many battery packs to hold components together. While glues have been chosen for good engineering reasons, related to improving reliability and resistance to vibration, these design choices can make it significantly harder, and more expensive, for recyclers to separate recyclable materials at the vehicle’s end of life.

Thanks to our collaboration on projects such as RECOVAS, EMR is starting to play a bigger role in the development of new design guidelines which will make end-of-life processing more efficient. Yet, realistically, the cars which are in prototype stage now won’t reach end-of-life for at least 15 years, making this a long-term project.

Fortunately, by collaborating more closely, there are also ‘quick wins’ that will make a big difference to the recycling of vehicles far sooner. This includes providing access for recyclers to the sophisticated on-board computer systems that control the modern electric vehicle batteries, records their behaviour and enables drivers, and recyclers, to communicate with them. These systems currently require very complex software to operate, but EMR is working with manufacturers to enable external parties gain access to these computers to allow more efficient re-use and recycling at end of life.

These tangible changes to the UK’s vehicle supply chain are going to play a vital role in helping the automotive industry become more sustainable and ensure that consumers have the confidence that the next car they drive really does create a more positive environmental impact. This work highlights the profound benefits that can arise when EMR works closely with manufacturers and suppliers to drive innovation and sustainable change.