Sustainably focused: how BMW protects our environment

8 min reading time
For BMW, sustainability isn’t just a buzzword: Long-term thinking and responsible action have always been fundamental to the BMW Group and its economic success. Read how the company aims to be the most sustainable auto manufacturer – and will soon take the next big step on this journey.

23 November 2021

The BMW Group set the course for the future early on and consistently focuses on sustainability and conserving resources, from the supply chain through production right up to the end-of-life phase of all products. This policy finds its voice in the BMW i Vision Circular, which was presented at the IAA Mobility 2021. The concept car is a landmark prototype of the circular economy (➜ Read more: Circular economy). The goal of achieving a completely climate-neutral business model by 2050 comes within reach with the BMW i Vision Circular. Although sustainability is the phrase currently on everyone’s lips, the topic itself is nothing new at the BMW Group. In fact, BMW began to establish sustainability as a central element of its corporate strategy as far back as the 1970s.

A first step

As early as the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, BMW converted a BMW 1602 into an electrically powered vehicle (➜ Read more: A classic car fan’s treasure hunt) to chaperone the long-distance walkers and marathon runners as a support vehicle. A year later, BMW became the first automotive company ever to appoint an environmental officer, a person to lay the foundations of preventive environmental protection.

Since then, the company has continuously developed its sustainability strategies and measures and put them into practice. New technologies to reduce emissions were introduced, such as catalytic converters and water-based paint technologies in paint shops, and recycling initiatives were created. In 1993, environmental guidelines were added to the BMW Leadership Principles which were mandatory for all employees. Since then, many manuals have been developed detailing the ecologically effective dismantling and recycling of individual BMW models.

The 2000s: strategy in flux

Sustainability became even more central to the company in 2000: a new Sustainability Value Report in 2001/2002 introduced future measures and divided them into four core areas:

  • Intelligent networking of different modes of transport to reduce traffic and make the best possible use of traffic space.
  • Continuous lowering of fleet consumption to conserve resources and reduce exhaust emissions.
  • Development of alternative drive concepts to maintain the quality of life and economic benefits of individual mobility in the long term.
  • Product concepts optimized for recycling and take-back/recycling of end-of-life vehicles to conserve resources, avoid and reduce waste.
The BMW Group takes on responsibility for the global environment as well as for the social issues of employees and society.
Joachim Milberg

Chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG 1999 through 2002

Even then, the BMW Group was actively researching alternative drive concepts. As well as pure electric drive, intensive research was also carried out into hydrogen drives (➜ Read more: All about hydrogen cars). The first BMW to have such a drive system was presented back in 1979. In a trial in 2000, 15 hydrogen-powered BMW 750hLs drove over 100,000 kilometers without a hitch. There were many developments outside of the core business around this time as well: In 2001, the BMW Group signed the “Cleaner Production” environmental declaration; in 2002, it endowed a professorship for sustainability in South Africa; and in 2002 and 2004, the BMW Group organized a number of dialog forums entitled “Sustainability – It can be done”.

The drive of the future

BMW had covered nearly 4 million kilometers since 2007 with a small series of 100 hydrogen-powered vehicles. However, the infrastructure was still inadequate for widespread use. The BMW Group is addressing this by participating in important initiatives to expand the hydrogen infrastructure, such as H2 Mobility and the CEP in Germany, and is an active member of the EU’s Fuel Cell Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. The BMW Group is also working with TOTAL Deutschland and the Linde Group to research new refueling technologies.

Electric motors have been gaining in importance over the years. However, batteries not being as powerful as they are today, electric drives usually had to be combined with combustion engines. BMW presented their first hybrid series vehicles in 2009 (➜ Read more: Engine technology highlights from BMW). The BMW ActiveHybrid 7 luxury sedan and the BMW ActiveHybrid X6 SAC were premiered at the IAA 2009 in Frankfurt. The BMW ActiveHybrid technology they carried significantly increased efficiency both in city and longer distance traffic. Efficiency increases of 20 percent over conventional combustion engines were already possible.

BMW i: born electric

“project i” (➜ Read also: 10 years of BMW i) kicked off the development of completely new driving concepts. Not only did they achieve emissions reduction, they also went as far as considering the entire value chain when assessing the environmental impact of the automobile. The following year, the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics study provided a first glimpse of BMW’s future path.

At the beginning of 2011, a “Megacity Vehicle” from BMW i saw the light of day as a concept car. The BMW Group presented a completely new concept at the IAA with this electric car: extremely lightweight materials such as aluminum and carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic CFRP (➜ Read more: Carbon – high-tech material in automotive engineering) came together with a futuristic design, modern digital technologies and new CO2-minimized production processes with 100 percent green electricity. Just two years later, the concept car evolved into the BMW i3, a resource-saving electric car for urban traffic.

The BMW i8 joined the BMW i series family in 2014 as a coupé (➜ Read more: BMW i8: pioneer, icon, and classic of the future) and the family was further expanded by the Roadster from 2018 onwards. In contrast to the pure electric motor of the BMW i3, the BMW i8 was based on the BMW Vision EfficientDynamics concept study and featured a plug-in hybrid drive (PHEV). This gave dramatically improved range and driving performance while keeping fuel consumption at the level of a small vehicle – with speeds of up to 120 km/h achievable in electric-only mode. The BMW i8 became the inspiration behind all subsequent BMW PHEVs.

Fuel cell technology as another alternative

BMW i is an innovation driver for the BMW Group. The sub-brand combines new technologies and approaches to mobility with premium-sector thinking. Electromobility and digitalization join the vision of holistic sustainability as further essential elements of the new concept. BMW i is extending these developments further throughout the BMW Group. The BMW Group has also initiated many other developments. Significant among these, the Group is one of the founding fathers of Ionity, which operates a network of charging stations for electric cars along highways. BMW Charging also points the way forward, as does its expansion of charging infrastructure on BMW Group-owned sites.

Successful trials with fuel cell drives have not been overlooked in the BMW i either: In 2019, the BMW Group presented the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT, demonstrating that it has also made further strides forward in the use of hydrogen fuel cell technologies. Two years later, the BMW iX5 Hydrogen had its first driving experience at the IAA 2021. The BMW Group is focusing on a combination of fuel cell and power battery to guarantee even stronger performance and exploit the advantages of both technologies. The vehicle is to be used in a small series from 2022 for demonstration and testing purposes.

From supply chain to recycling: The BMW Group thinks holistically

Long before the first Sustainability Value Report, the BMW Group placed emphasis on recycling and dismantling vehicles in the most environmentally friendly way possible. In 1990, BMW started up its first own pilot vehicle disassembly facility at the Landshut plant. The world’s first manufacturer’s in-house “recycling-optimized vehicle design” works standard was introduced in 1992, and the first manuals for recycling companies on ecological dismantling followed in 1993. The manufacturer then went one step further in its first Sustainability Value Report.

The BMW Group brings all factors of production into consideration in reducing CO2 emissions, from suppliers to production to disassembly. “Design for Recycling” (➜ Read more: The future is circular) is the guiding principle that ensures that reusability is taken into account right from the development phase. This means that vehicles will be almost completely recyclable. More and more use is being made of recycled and renewable raw materials for interior trims and sound insulation to make this happen. Suppliers were also consistently involved to keep emissions generated even before production as low as possible.

By including the theme of sustainability in our annual report, we are sending the clearest possible sign that we see sustainability as inseparable from our business model.
Oliver Zipse

Chairman of the Board of Management of the BMW Group

Firmly anchored sustainability

As well as winning multiple awards in the DOW Jones Sustainability Index, the sustainability strategy and public transparency of the BMW Group has been recognized with awards from the Carbon Disclosure Projects, the Sam Sustainability Awards and also in the Sustainalytics Sustainability Rating. Another strategic development to illustrate the focus on sustainability and progress in meeting climate goals came in 2020: The Sustainability Value Report was integrated into the Annual Report. Yet more evidence that sustainability and resource conservation are at the heart of the company’s strategic focus. The first visionary launches were not long in coming: With the BMW i Vision Circular (➜ Read more: A vehicle for the year 2040), the BMW Group once again presented a completely revolutionary concept at the IAA in Munich.

We are well below the levels of the rest of the German auto industry in terms of CO2 emissions per vehicle produced.
Oliver Zipse

Chairman of the Board of Management of the BMW Group

The future of sustainable (automobile) mobility

The BMW Group commits itself to ambitious goals through its strategic direction, which it intends to improve upon even further with the introduction of the Neue Klasse. By 2030, the BMW Group will halve CO2 emissions per vehicle in the use phase. They are also planning to utilize up to 50 percent secondary materials, and the company will be focusing on further cooperative ventures for plastics recycling. The circular economy plays a particularly important role in this, known as circularity. However, BMW is also pulling other levers. The BMW Group has been purchasing aluminum produced by electricity from solar energy since the beginning of 2021. Aluminum production is particularly energy-intensive, so utilizing green electricity results in a significant reduction in CO2 emissions. Green power is fundamentally an effective lever to achieve the corporate goal of reducing CO2 emissions in the supplier network by 20 percent by 2030.

Another important step is utilizing recycled tungsten for tools. This metal has important properties for production: It is very hard and significantly more heat resistant than iron. The emphasis on a closed material cycle by the BMW Group has now resulted in reducing the amount of tungsten required by seven tons per year. This cuts energy consumption by 70 percent and CO2 emissions by over 60 percent compared to the use of primary tungsten. And when it comes to natural rubber, the BMW Group has also launched a three-year project together with Pirelli and Birdlife International to promote sustainable cultivation of natural rubber while protecting biodiversity in the tropical rainforest.

The goal is 100 percent

The supply of raw materials in the world is finite. So initiatives such as those mentioned above are more urgent than ever. The BMW Group is therefore working consistently to switch to processes which generate as little waste as possible. It has already succeeded in reducing CO2 emissions per vehicle produced: 78 percent lower in 2020 compared with 2006. BMW vehicles are already currently 95 percent recyclable, and 90 percent of the high-voltage batteries can also be recycled. The BMW Group is pushing toward even higher goals though: Newly mined raw materials should only be used if there is absolutely no alternative. The BMW i Vision Circular offers a foretaste of what a car based on circularity could actually look like. The study is made of 100 percent recycled materials and is also 100 percent recyclable. It forms the embodiment of the ambition of the BMW Group to become the world’s most sustainable auto manufacturer.

Author: Ben Seegatz; Photos: BMW; Video: BMW; Collages: Carolin Wabra