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Nearly 2,500 years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote what has been translated as: “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know”.

He could well have been writing about the quest for zero emissions. Put very simply, the initial focus was on the tailpipe. Engineers changed the way engines are managed to reduce fuel consumption and hence the solids and gases emitted through the tailpipe without affecting performance.

They succeeded. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in model year 2020, the average estimated real-world CO2 emission rate for all new vehicles fell by 7 g/mi to 349 g/mi, the lowest ever measured. Fuel economy increased by 0.5 mpg to a record 25.4 (10.8 km/l), despite the almost universal adoption of air conditioning and greater use of onboard electronics.

With a greater understanding of the way internal combustion engines work came the realization that the lower the mass of the vehicle, the less work the powertrain had to do, and therefore the more fuel efficient it would be. OEMs introduced lighter materials such as aluminum and plastics. Innovation in materials is being fueled by the switch to electric vehicles.

With new materials came the realization that not much was known about the value chain that brought the commodities and components to the factory gate. The industry started asking about the “mine-to-market” value chain. A 2020 McKinsey & Company report defines this value chain as everything from extracting raw material to delivering products to customers. “Companies that manage their value chain well can establish a significant source of competitive advantage and value creation. By contrast, those that neglect their value chain are likely to encounter bottlenecks and constraints that will limit shipped throughput and risk yield,” write the authors Stephan Görner et al.

They found that mine-to-market performance is determined by organizational enablement and data and tech architecture. “Organizational enablement includes a mindset shift — perceiving the mining value chain as one integrated process rather than a series of individual steps. It introduces lean and agile processes as well as continuous improvements in technology and advanced analytics,” they write.

Another mindset shift is needed – the concept of a mine. It does not have to be a hole in the ground. There are piles of scrap metal, plastics, rubber and other materials blotting the landscape and clogging up landfills around the world.

Aluminum producers were among the first to ask themselves how to reuse their scrap. According to the International Aluminum Institute, (IAI), more than 30 million tons of aluminum scrap is recycled globally every year, making it one of the most recycled materials on the planet.

Moving from traditional, linear supply chains to a true circular economy like the aluminum one could help the UK automotive industry alone reduce its emissions by the equivalent of 16 million tons of CO2 a year, manufacturing consultancy HSSMI estimates.

“Strategies, such as reuse, remanufacturing and recycling negate the need for constant resupply of new raw materials by redirecting end of life products from landfill back into the supply chain, where their components and materials can be recovered and repurposed as feedstock for equivalent new products,” says HSSMI Circular Economy Manager, Savina Venkova.

This approach is vital if electric vehicles are to contribute meaningfully to reducing the carbon footprint of transport. Currently, about 20% of an automobile’s life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are generated before it is driven off the lot. The Circular Cars initiative estimates that with electrification, these emissions from materials and production (mostly batteries) will increase to 60% by 2040. Then there is the problem of recycling the batteries, as well as the composites being used.

So, the question we as an industry need to be asking ourselves when designing the next generation of vehicles is how to reduce total emissions throughout the loop from mine to recycled components.