Recycling initiatives at Renault have boosted the use of recycled plastics in new cars and cut purchasing costs on some parts, but have yet to bring major cost savings for the French carmaker.

“If we order a piece in recycled plastic, we systematically insist on paying less than if it was made from virgin plastic,” Fabrice Abraham, Renault’s recycling engineering manager, said during a recent environmental seminar in Paris.

“Aside from that purchasing policy, it’s hard to put a hard number on cost savings. The end-of-life recycling initiative has really been more of a laboratory for eco-conception and meeting other environmental objectives,” Abraham said.

Renault became a major player in the French recycling sector in 2008, when it launched an EUR100m joint venture with Sita France, the recycling arm of French environmental services giant Suez, to develop end-of-life vehicle recycling programs. The JV has since taken control of Indra Investissement, which manages 350 vehicle dismantlers nationwide.
Indra’s dismantler network broke down more than 350,000 cars in 2009. The network is spearheading Renault’s bid to comply with European Union (EU) rules that will force carmakers to demonstrate that their new vehicles are designed to be at least 85% recyclable or reusable and 95% recoverable from 2015.

Renault’s third-generation Megane hatchback, which launched in late-2008, was the first model specifically designed to meet certifiable recycling standards, according to Alice de Brauer, Renault’s director of environmental planning.

“Life-cycle analysis has become a major element in not only the environmental discussion, but the product planning cycle as well,” de Brauer said.

After observing recycling processes at dismantler sites, Renault has added easily-accessible siphons into fuel tank and radiator designs, to allow simpler drainage and collection of fluids. “Everything we do on the eco-design side should simplify operations for dismantlers,” Abraham added.

Such research has also led to design changes in many plastic parts at Renault, to reduce mixing materials that are incompatible in the recycling process.

Beyond ensuring recyclability, the French carmaker says its end-of-life recycling initiative should help it meet goals to include 20% of recycled plastic in all new vehicles by 2015.

The Scenic people mover, which is built on the Megane platform and shares many of its parts and components, is Renault’s current champion, and a case in point regarding recycling. The Scenic contains 34 kilograms of recycled plastics, representing about 14% of total plastics in the vehicle. It is a dramatic improvement from the 8 kg of recycled plastics used in 1999, but still below the 50 kg ceiling Renault aims to hit during 2015.

Cars on Renault’s low-cost Logan platform average about 7% recycled plastic, while the Clio compact and Twingo minicar weigh in with 11% and 9% recycled plastics respectively.

All told, Renault incorporated 27,000 tonnes of recycled plastic into its new cars in 2009, a figure slated to rise dramatically in the coming decade, de Brauer said.
While recycled plastic was once reserved for invisible under-pinnings such as wheel arch liners, it is now used in everything from dashboards to bumpers and interior trim pieces. “We’re making rapid progress, and no longer just using recycling plastics in parts that you don’t see, but those that are apparent as well,” Abraham said.

Working with dismantlers has allowed Renault to improve the quality of recycled plastics – principally the use of colour – and boost uptake, but it has also highlighted long-term challenges for meeting recyclability targets, notably for glass.

“Everyone in the recycling business obviously wants to make money, but that is really hard given the high logistics costs associated with glass, not to mention the extremely complicated manufacture process,” Abraham said.

Renault is working with recycling industry partners on potential alternative uses for recycled glass from end-of-life vehicles, including incorporation into building insulation or paints. “Figuring out glass recycling will be the key to meeting the European targets,” he concluded.

By Lawrence J Speer, in Paris