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Building a Circular Economy: How Ford, Novelis Created a Truly Closed Loop for Automotive Aluminum

The Ford and Novelis Closed-Loop Recycling model for the new aluminum Ford F-150 | Image credit: Novelis

With approximately 9 billion people in the world today, society consumes and discards more and more each year, with no signs of slowing down. Culturally, we’ve begun to embrace and adopt recycling as a solution to our modern waste habits and an opportunity to keep designing, using and producing recyclable materials. But what if those recyclable materials are not in fact being recycled? Well, then we’re right back where we started, aren’t we?

Certain material types and laminates are now proving prohibitively expensive or environmentally marginal to recycle in many countries. As a result, these materials are still winding up in landfills, perpetuating the problem. Even products that do make it through the recycling process often wind up being downcycled due to loss of quality or value in the next-generation product. These materials are only recyclable once, maybe twice, and then they, too, wind up in landfills.

In fact, very few products today are both highly recyclable and made of high recycled content, and even fewer have high end-of-life collection. As manufacturers and product-producing brands, it’s our responsibility to ensure what we’re putting into the marketplace is being processed and actually recycled as planned. That’s where closed-loop recycling comes in.

Novelis’ John Gardner
Ford’s Carrie Majeske
will discuss

building a closed loop
SB '15 San Diego

The concept of “closed-loop” recycling seems to offer a viable solution to the make-take-waste culture and is now putting key theories of the circular economy to the test. By designing products with recycling in mind, using materials that are 100 percent recyclable, and building infrastructure and partnerships to bring those materials back in a clean, closed-loop stream for real recycling, we’re able to avoid waste byproducts and maintain the integrity of the source material for infinite recycling. One of the best examples of this is closed-loop recycling of aluminum in the auto industry.

Novelis has been producing aluminum for the automotive industry for more than 40 years, but only recently have we been able to form such a truly integrated partnership as we have with Ford Motor Company. This partnership has enabled us to collaborate and build an infrastructure that is ensuring Ford’s automotive aluminum is recycled in a truly closed loop, recreating the same automotive sheet again and again and again.

To be honest, it wasn’t an easy undertaking. Ford gutted its entire Dearborn manufacturing facility to make the switch from steel to a more sustainable, lightweight aluminum, and Novelis constructed brand-new automotive aluminum production lines and new recycling infrastructure to process the return scrap. We even collaborated on the design of a unique fleet of trucks to deliver Novelis aluminum to Dearborn for stamping and pick up the return scrap for closed-loop recycling back at Novelis.

Novelis and Ford also have been collaborating on the design of the vehicles themselves, using aluminum alloys that accept higher amounts of recycled content and planning with end-of-life recycling in mind.

What does this all mean for the business? Not only does recycling aluminum require 95 percent less energy to produce and generate 95 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, but also it provides Novelis with more supply chain security by having a regular inbound supply of scrap for recycling back into the marketplace. For Ford, it means less embedded carbon in its products, but more importantly, it means a vehicle that is 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor, resulting in best-in-class fuel economy, towing and payload, faster acceleration, enhanced handling and braking responsiveness, and a five-star safety rating.

Next week at Sustainable Brands ’15 San Diego, I’ll dive in deeper on this partnership and its results with Carrie Majeske, Associate Director of Global Sustainability Integration at Ford, and how the closed-loop recycling model is setting a new standard for recycling in our respective industries and beyond.

John Gardner was named Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Novelis Inc the world’s leading aluminium rolled products and aluminum recycling company, on January 1st 2011.  He is a member of the Global Executive Committee. He is responsible for driving sustainability across Novelis’… [Read more about John Gardner]

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