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Circular Economy Framework for Automobiles: Closing Energy and Material Loops

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Full Publication Date
November 20, 2020

Corporations, including automotive manufacturers, are increasingly exploring extended circular economy strategies as a means to enhance the sustainability of their products. The circular economy paradigm focuses on reducing nonrenewable materials and energy, promoting renewable feedstocks and energy, and keeping products/materials in use across the life cycle of a system. As such, life cycle environmental burdens associated with vehicle manufacturing, use, and disposal could potentially be reduced through circular economy strategies; however, no such comprehensive circular economy framework currently exists for the automotive industry. We develop the first circular economy schematic of automobiles, derived from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s framework. Further, we characterize the current automotive circular economy using metrics of renewable energy and recycled materials. Specifically, for current U.S. average sedans, we find that internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) use ∼6% renewable life cycle primary energy and 27% recycled materials; for battery electric vehicles (BEVs), these measures are ∼8% and 21%, respectively. On a vehicle-miles-traveled basis, BEVs use ∼47% less nonrenewable life cycle primary energy than ICEVs, highlighting the importance of electrification as a strategy for automotive manufacturers to reduce environmental burdens. Our proposed circular economy framework is then applied to Ford Motor Company’s sustainability programs and initiatives as an example. This schematic aims to provide a starting point for the automotive industry to operationalize circular economy strategies, the application of which could advance its overall sustainability performance.

Research Areas
Mobility Systems
automobiles, circular economy, energy, industrial ecology, materials, sustainability
Publication Type
Journal Article
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Full Citation
Aguilar Esteva, Laura, Akshat Kasliwal, Michael Kinzler, Hyung Chul Kim, and Gregory A. Keoleian. (2020) “Circular Economy Framework for Automobiles: Closing Energy and Material Loops.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 25(4):877–889.