As a European economic powerhouse, it should come as no surprise that France is right on top of its car recycling percentages. A more interesting matter is to what degree the French are prepared for a future in which circular thinking, the reuse of car parts and battery recycling become ever more important. How well does the country do in these areas?
Like other European economic powerhouses, France boasts a flourishing automotive industry. Principal contributors such as Renault and PSA (Peugeot, Citroën and Opel) represent about 7.2 million cars sold worldwide. The domestic market – comprising 32 million cars – offers a solid base. With over 400,000 Renaults, nearly 380,000 Peugeots and another 235,000 Citroëns, these three classic French car brands are immensely popular. To illustrate: in 2019, 2.2 million new cars were sold in France.
All that is new will eventually grow old. Every year, over 1.5 million cars are discarded in France. As véhicules hors d’usage (VHUs), they are dismantled and shredded, after which plastics, minerals, fibres and metals are separated. The French score percentages of 87.4% recycling and 94.6% useful reuse of the car weight.
The role of car manufacturers
The French car manufacturers play an important part in the car recycling process. Through Renault Environment, market leader Renault has full ownership of end-of-life waste processing company Gaïa. In addition, the company takes part in joint ventures with Boone Comenor (scrap metal) and Indra (in cooperation with waste processing company SUEZ). As an ELV collector, Indra has no less than 350 national processing plants, and has handled over 8.6 million ELVs since 1985.
“French car manufacturers play an important role when it comes to car recycling”
Groupe Renault is especially proficient in setting up closed-loop recycling systems. They have been doing so since 2011. Among other things, the concern recovers copper wires, platinum and polypropylene from end-of-life vehicles. In its own factory in Choisy-le-Roi, Groupe Renault engages in the remanufacturing of engines and gearboxes. The approach Renault applies is based on commitment, but also yields profits, as Jean-Denis Curt, top executive in the area of circular production at Groupe Renault told us earlier.
In addition to company philosophy and profitability, laws are an important drive in the efforts of the French car brands. In France, garage owners need to present their customers with a quote that includes reused original parts. This system has been in effect since 2017 and is not quite watertight yet – not all garage owners feel the need to draft these alternative quotes. Despite this, original used parts sales have increased enormously. In 2013, long before this law came into effect, Indra Automobile Recycling set up Précis. This is an online search engine for original used parts that does not only include mother company Renault, but also Toyota, FCA, Honda and Nissan, in addition to such parties as Autoneo, Five Star and Acoat. The fact that Renault rival Groupe PSA joined in early 2019 demonstrates the sheer potential of the used part catalogue.
“In addition to business philosophy and profitability, the law plays an important role in the efforts of the French car brands”
French car brands will face their next challenge in the area of battery recycling. After all, Europe is miles behind compared to Asia and the US (Tesla) when it comes to the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. Companies from those markets have a combined market share of 85 percent. In order to make Europe a key producer of batteries, European producers such as Groupe Renault and Groupe PSA should gain control over the scarce raw materials required for the battery packs of electric cars. Recycling is an essential part of this process.
With Eramet, SNAM, and Euro Dieuze Industrie (EDI), France has three recycling companies within its borders that know how to deal with lithium-ion batteries. That is why PSA concluded a partnership with SNAM in 2015, something that BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota and Honda did as well. Since 2011, Renault has worked together with Veolia subsidiary EDI. This company recovers materials like copper, aluminium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and lithium from the batteries using a hydrometallurgical process. Currently, the company recycles 85% of its cobalt, and it’s making great strides forward with lithium, too. The end goal is to recycle all recovered materials in new batteries produced by Renault, thus closing the loop.
“In France, garage owners must also provide their customers with a quote that includes recycled original parts”
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
It is remarkable how French companies engage one another at the outset of this large-scale battery recycling process, as well as in setting up circular flows and the creation of a pool for used parts. This fraternal display suits the country’s motto, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. However, they are not afraid of looking beyond their own borders, either. The third battery recycling company, Eramet, is partly looking for a solution outside of France. The company recently joined forces with Suez and the German chemical powerhouse BASF. This trio wants to recycle lithium-ion batteries on a large scale. They expect that about 50,000 tonnes of batteries will have to be recycled in Europe in 2027, and ten times this amount in 2035.
Vive la France
The French penchant for brands from France is clear from the 1,647 ELV processing centres in the country. Apart from the odd Ford Fiësta or Opel Corsa (now part of PSA as well), they mostly process traditional French brands – as shown by the annual top 15. The models are nineteen years old on average; added proof that the French really stick with their locally-produced cars.