It’s a critical question with a myriad of answers depending on whether you view the car as an icon of modern society, an enhanced mode of mobility or more bluntly, a symbol of environmental degradation confronting most modern cities. 

Viewing the car as an isolated object of great innovation and ingenuity fails to fully acknowledge the massive infrastructure systems it has generated, including all the associated impacts and problems.

However, to ignore the significant technological advances embodied in vehicles is also unnecessarily selective and unproductive.

While this article seeks to avoid being apologetic for the downsides of the auto industry, it does aim to highlight some noteworthy work being conducted by a more progressive player, especially in the area of light-weighting with environmentally preferable materials.

The recycling of old cars is not a new process; indeed seventy-five percent of the weight of cars has been recycled for years, due to the high steel content.

The recycle value of such materials is high, due to the fact that there is little or no reduction in quality or performance, even after the recycling process. 

In a previous issue of Curve, an auto industry representative suggested that the specification of recycled and/or ‘eco-friendly’ materials within the industry was “problematic and unlikely to occur unless regulated for by government”.

While this may be the case for some producers in certain jurisdictions, other companies have been successfully demonstrating the possibilities of how life cycle environmental impacts are being reduced through the use of more benign and renewable materials.

Importantly some of these ‘eco’ material improvements have been incorporated into new car production regardless of tightening regulatory frameworks.

The BMW Group has long been held up as an exemplar of environmental commitment and innovation in the automotive sector. The company’s continuous attention to environmental factors, and the broader more complex goal of sustainable development, has maintained the BMW Group as one of the leaders in environmental performance, especially in relation to design for disassembly and recyclability.

To focus on one company at the cost of highlighting others doesn’t provide a comprehensive survey, however the BMW Group’s track record deserves special attention.

Admittedly, most auto companies have commendable environmental programs underway, but the BMW Group has a history of environmentally oriented innovation, including work on end-of-life vehicles. 

From an eco-design perspective, the company has clearly shown how design for materials efficiency can be practically embedded into new vehicles – no excuses and no negatives – just action and commercialisation.

The BMW Group has been a pioneer in design for disassembly and recycling techniques having invested in considerable research and development and associated infrastructure. 

In a report to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002, the BMW Group noted: “The demands on BMW Group automobiles are extensive.

Along with the highest standards for safety, comfort and quality, they have to fulfil environmental and recycling requirements. To implement this, the BMW Group pursues a comprehensive approach.

Based on advanced engine technologies and intelligent lightweight design, these requirements are integrated consistently into the product development process. This supports the objective of sustainable products for all customers.

While the critical importance of improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions is acknowledged by the BMW Group, it also recognises the significance of environmentally preferable materials and their appropriate use: “Beyond the advanced motor technology, intelligent lightweight design and innovative materials are the key technologies of the BMW Group for a sustainable product development”, the report said.

The issue of recycled, recyclable and renewable, materials is addressed through a suite of widely agreed eco-design principles. When collectively applied, such principles not only maximise materials efficiency from the outset, they also enable end-of-life disassembly and recycling to be cost effective and uncomplicated. Key recycling-oriented requirements specified by the BMW Group cover:

• use of recyclable and pure-grade plastics

• reduction of the variety of plastics

• use of composite materials compatible in recycling

• selection of suitable joining techniques

• material labelling

• use of secondary materials such as post-consumer recycled content

The BMW Group has successfully utilised cleaner production, benign finishes, renewable materials and more elaborate natural fibre composites. These advances are real-world and feature in most current BMW Group vehicles.

They are not concepts or prototypes, but practical advances, which minimise impacts and maximise efficiency. According to the BMW Group, “...the body is now treated in colour lines spraying on the appropriate colour using powder clear paint technology to provide superior protection and surface gloss.” No solvents, cleaners, water or effluent are used in the entire process.

The BMW Group has also managed to use low impact materials. They use natural fibre based materials in various components such as door trim panel carriers.

BMW has invested in disassembly and recycling centres with a significant focus on building capacity and knowledge among designers and engineers. At a specific level, BMW Technik GmbH operates an Innovation and Technology Centre and a Recycling and Dismantling Centre, which provide a hands-on classroom and laboratory. 

The centre is actively used to test new eco-design methods and demonstrate to designers the practical problems associated with materials separation and recycling contamination at end-of-life. Product developers get to see first hand how design for recycling works or doesn’t work depending on design decisions made several years previously.  

Like Toyota and their exemplary work on commercialising the Prius, the BMW Group shows how design can be successfully applied within the context of sustainability.  

“Sustainable management is synonymous with management’s ability to achieve economic success while placing equal emphasis on environmental protection and social responsibility,” says Dr Norbert Reithofer, Member of the Board of Management of BMW Group AG, Production.

Overall the story is a positive one and provides a template for the laggards to follow. Using ‘regulatory compliance’ as an essential prerequisite for good design and environmental responsibility indicates a reactive approach not often associated with best of class performers. 

For more information about the BMW Group and sustainability visit:

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