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  • Writer's pictureMarc de Wit

How design for recyclability and recoverability will drive the car of tomorrow

In 2021, the EU’s passenger car numbers reached almost 250 million, and the industry’s growth shows no sign of plateauing.¹ This continued expansion is causing mobility-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and waste production to rise at alarming rates.

Today, the sector is responsible for 30% of worldwide carbon emissions, and also consumes a substantial share of global resources, demanding over 10% of all materials used worldwide.¹ ² To put this in context, the global economy consumes over 100 billion tonnes of resources every year — primarily virgin metal ores, fossil fuels, biomass and minerals — of which only 7.2% is cycled back into use.³

Bridging the gap to circular mobility

Research conducted by Circle Economy in collaboration with Bain & Company found that although the European passenger car industry boasts recycling rates of close to 90%, the actual figure is around 59%¹, while the circularity rate is still lower only 41% ² — a figure that, while better than the average, reflects the gap between recycling and true circularity.³

The study also found the sector has the potential to reach 66% circularity by 2040, but to realize this potential it will need to move beyond recycling and fundamentally rethink its approach to the design, production, and use of vehicles.¹

In Europe, regulation is already catalyzing change, including through driving rapid growth in the electric vehicles (EV) market, as well as setting ambitious standards for end-of-life management. Additionally, innovative Mobility-as-a-Service models, such as driverless cab fleets, have the potential to improve vehicle utilization.

Improving fuel efficiency with high-performance plastics

In parallel, the use of high-performance plastics is making cars lighter, which improves fuel efficiency and increases the range of EVs. Today, plastics represent an average of 12% of a car by weight, in components such as seating, insulation systems, door cladding, electric batteries, and airbags, and there is scope to further expand its use.

These are all promising developments, but we need to go further. To create a circular car, we need to consider its entire lifecycle, from initial design to end-of-life management.

A circular car begins with better design

Despite the sector’s relatively high recycling rate, very little of the recovered material is currently reused in new vehicles. Our research shows that 79% of material inputs for new vehicles come from virgin sources.¹ For plastics, only 11% is from recycled sources.

By improving design for recycling and recoverability, car producers will increase the availability of high-quality secondary materials. In an environment of increasing supply chain competition for materials and rising insecurity of critical materials, improving the secondary-materials market will give producers greater certainty over their inputs.

Additional measures such as increasing the reuse and remanufacturing of components will improve the situation still further. In addition, producers need to continue to look beyond steel for opportunities to lightweight vehicles through material innovation.

Getting ahead of policy for a strategic advantage

As we look to the next decade, evolving policy will present a significant challenge to the industry, but also offer a chance for forward-thinking companies to seize a strategic advantage. By establishing strong partnerships within the recovery and recycling sector, first-movers will secure access to the secondary market, which is expected to experience a surge in demand in response to regulatory changes and shifting consumer expectations.

The journey to a more circular passenger car sector is challenging and requires a collective strategic approach. Europe — already leading in policy development for the circular transition — has the opportunity to set a global example, driving the mobility industry towards a more sustainable and resource-efficient future.


¹ European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. (2023). Vehicles in Use, Europe. Retrieved from: ACEA website

² Joint Research Centre, Sala, S., Benini, L., Crenna, E., & Secchi, M. (2016). Global environmental impacts and planetary boundaries in LCA. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Retrieved from: European Commission website

³ Circle Economy. (2021). The circularity gap report 2021. Amsterdam: Circle Economy. Retrieved from: CGRi website

⁴ The World Bank. (2022). Squaring the Circle: Policies from Europe’s Circular Economy Transition © World Bank. Retrieved from: World Bank website

⁵ The figure of 90% only accounts for what is collected and sent to recyclers. When recycling losses and efficiencies are considered, this share drops to 78%, falling further to 59% when the number of end-of-life vehicles exported from Europe are considered.

⁶ As measured by the Circularity Transition Indicator, a consumption-based measure, expressed as a percentage, representing a weighted average of the fraction of an industry’s secondary inputs out of its total material consumption and its percentage of wastes and outflows that are reused or recycled. Source: WBCSD. (2021, February 1). Circular Transition Indicators v2.0 – Metrics for business, by business. Retrieved from: WBCSD website

Circle Economy, Bain & Company. (2022). Beyond recycling: The circular opportunity for passenger cars in Europe. Amsterdam: Circle Economy.

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