How truck design can play a part in making recovery of materials easier – and boost the circular economy.
A lot of material goes into a piece of heavy machinery like a truck. Thousands of kilos of resources, formed into thousands of parts. Much of this material can be recycled and subsequently re-used. But for that to happen, those materials need to be recovered. And as the machines and vehicles we use in our industry have grown larger over the decades, and have become exponentially more complex, this has become less straightforward.
These days, instead of just recycling, we tend to talk more about circularity and the circular economy. This is a concept which includes other factors like refurbishment and repair – all of which are being considered and enabled throughout our industry. But this switch in focus doesn’t mean we have moved on from recycling, nor that it has been replaced by a new way of thinking: it’s a central part of circularity and as important an issue today as it ever has been.
In fact, in order to stop the process of recycling from becoming more difficult, it’s something we need to consider even when a vehicle is born. In other words, we need to consider the end of a truck’s lifespan right at the very beginning. And one of the ways we can do that is through design.
Designed for life
The reason for doing this is simple. A heavy-duty truck might contain upwards of 3000 kilos of steel, as well as a couple of thousand kilos of cast iron and half a tonne of aluminium. Add to that 400 kilos of rubber, a little more again of plastic, and more than a hundred kilos of copper, and you start to understand not only the size and scale, but also the material value – in terms of sheer volume – of just one vehicle.
A heavy-duty truck might contain upwards of 3000 kilos of steel, as well as a couple of thousand kilos of cast iron and half a tonne of aluminium. Add to that 400 kilos of rubber, a little more again of plastic, and more than a hundred kilos of copper, and you start to understand not only the size and scale, but also the material value – in terms of sheer volume – of just one vehicle.
The value of this material and the importance of it staying in the loop, both to businesses and the planet, is mirrored in legislation. In 2023, the European Commission made a series of proposals to build on and replace the existing ELV (end-of-life vehicles) directive – which deals with end-of-life processes for cars and small vans and which is now proposed to include trucks. The proposed changes include stricter demands on vehicle recycling, including how much recycled materials that must go into vehicles when they’re built. The proposals focus on manufacturer responsibility for end-of-life processes, including end-of-life strategies. The amounts of recycled materials present in vehicles must be declared: and, crucially, the ways in which materials are removed from vehicles need to be stated, and then carried out safely and efficiently according to established processes.
Recovery and recycling are once again brought sharply into focus by the proposed new regulatory changes. But so is the way in which vehicles are designed and built, with extra importance placed on the recycling market for automotive manufacturers. That’s the industry devoted to recovery, which helps us close the loop within our own industry.
It is important that manufacturers collaborate with this industry as much as examining their own processes. Efficiency is something that we in our industry focus on intensively, and efficient recovery of recyclable materials is no different. Let’s go through some of the main materials you might find in a heavy vehicle like a truck, and examine how they can be designed and used in ways which make them easier to dismantle and recover. In short: how a truck can be made to be made again.
Metal is by far the most common type of material used in a truck. In order to make metal easy to recover, a couple of things need to be considered during the design phase. Metal which has been welded is far more difficult to dismantle than metal which has been screwed or bolted together: this can be considered.
It’s also important to consider creating instructions for dismantling which can be provided to the companies who will dismantle the truck, so that they know how the vehicle can be handled. When designed, it is also a good idea to include a mark in the material itself that states precisely what type of metal it is.
And finally, one key aspect of the process for automotive manufacturers is how the surface of the metal is treated. Paint and protective treatments can make metal more durable, and durable materials last longer. Does the material need to be painted or protected, will the paint or protective layer be easy to remove, and can the paint and protective layers be part of the recycling process?
Currently, we can say that plastic which has been created in a certain colour (known as “incoloured”) is far easier to recycle than plastic which has been painted or otherwise coated on the outside.
Linnéa Nilsson, Specialist Designer Sustainability and CMF (Colour Material Finish) says: “Paint can sometimes protect surfaces and make it more appealing. However, from a recycling perspective, with today’s recycling technology, it is better to avoid adding an extra layer of colour. But things are changing and recycling processes will improve.”
“When working with plastics, it is important to focus on selecting plastics that can be recycled,” Linnéa continues. “There are two types of plastics – thermosets and thermoplastics. Thermosets cannot be recycled in a good way using our current technology, whereas thermoplastics can be melted down and used again. From a design for recycling perspective it is therefore clear what type of plastic to go for.”
“Then we move onto the issue of combining materials. In the best case, if all of the pieces of plastic that exist in one part, like a door panel, can be recycled together, it aids disassembly. The component can then be recycled whole instead of having to be disaseembled further. Combining plastics of the same type is an important part of preparing our products for the recycling process as well as keeping the quality and value of recycled material high.”
The inside of a cab is one of the areas in which a balance needs to be struck between comfort, durability, quality of material and sustainability: in which one cannot be compromised for any of the others.
As years go by, more and more materials are developed which are perceived as premium but which are made from either recycled or renewable materials. The challenge to designers is therefore to incorporate these into cab designs in a way which lasts long and is appealing to use. As Linnéa Nilsson puts it: “We’re looking for a low impact of from production, durability during the use phase, then recyclability at the end of life.”
“Recycled PET materials from bottles, and polyamide from fishing nets, have relatively low CO2. Some textiles are essentially plastics so we can follow the same logic of recyclability as we do with other sorts of plastic. But an important aspect to consider is again, not trying to blend types of material together – to use what we call monomaterials. And if you’re using polyester for a textile surface, you need to use a polyester backing too, making recyclability of the complete piece of upholstery far more straightforward.”
We’re looking for a low impact of from production, durability during the use phase, then recyclability at the end of life.
Here, design for refurbishment and repair goes hand in hand with design for recycling. Batteries in vehicles can, like tyres, have a series of “lives”: the difference being that second-life batteries are more often given different applications, such as providing energy storage or charging solutions.
The batteries that are used in trucks are, strictly speaking, arrays of batteries: large and complex components made from everything to metal frames and electronics used to regulate the performance of the batteries, to the energy carrier inside the cells themselves. As these need to be maintained throughout their first lifetime in the truck, if batteries are to be recyclable they should be easily accessible and dismantlable. This secures the value, and performance, during their time in the vehicle. Designing them so that they are easy to inspect and swap out also means better dismantlability – which in turn makes material recovery easier.
One final thing to consider is that recycling in the automotive industry is carried out on a large scale. As such, it is important that as well as taking these design measures and considerations into perspective, and building vehicles which are easier to dismantle, that automotive manufacturers enter into close partnerships with recycling firms to ensure that processes are developed together, and products made which suit those processes – thereby closing loops and creating circular flows.