Waste is an unavoidable part of any business. Unless you go to extreme measures to stop it, it’s guaranteed during the creation of a product and at the end of its life.
In the electric vehicle (EV) industry, this is especially common. Many parts are used to make a car, and all become waste once used.
Efficient methods for recycling ICEVs have been made butEVs are harder to process. Recycling lithium-ion EV batteries takes a lot of time and resources due to small parts inside them
Worldwide efforts aim to slash carbon emissions within the next few decades. It’s important to look at safe, reliable ways to limit the amount of EV electrical (e-)waste produced.
This blog covers the ways the amount of e-waste generated is managed. Effectively recycling all EVs and their by-products at the end of their life is the best way to go.
What does EV e-waste look like?
E-waste refers to any thrown away electrical and electronic equipment (EEE). This not only includes EV batteries, but also things such as:
anti-lock braking systems (ABS)
This all needs to be organised and scrapped safely. It’s important to save whatever parts can be reused. Then you can crush, burn, and shred anything else, making it easier to transport.
Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to expect that every car ready for scrap will be processed. With the ever-increasing amount of cars on the road, a back-log of old vehicles has been produced.
It is hard to know the full length of this backlog. This is due to the lack of cataloguing in some scrap yards and illegal scrapping procedures.
Scrapping EVs is often more dangerous due to the high voltage in them. There is also an increased likelihood of a battery explosion when being taken apart. To avoid this, specialised training is needed.
As EVs grow in popularity, the amount of e-waste they produce will increase much more. A report by the University of Technology Sydney in Australia predicted that 1.6 million tonnes of EV batteries will reach their end-of-life by 2025.
A lack of proper equipment to deal with this increase could lead to major problems for recycling facilities. Poor training for lithium-ion battery disposal also shows serious risks.
Process of scrapping a car
UK government regulations require that at least 85% of an end-of-life vehicle (ELV) is recycled or reused. This includes any liquids inside the car, its e-waste, interiors, and the body as a whole.
Car scrapping is a strong industry. New technologies and processes are introduced every year to help improve things and make sure nothing is wasted. Here is a general overview of how car scrapping works.
A vehicle is looked at to see what went wrong if the answer is not clear. It is then tested to see which parts can be saved and resold, if that is an option for the facility.
In some cases, to make transportation easier, the tyres are removed and taken to be recycled. Almost 100% of tyres are recycled in the UK. They can be shredded and turned into ‘crumb rubber’. This is used on playgrounds, asphalt, and flooring, among other things.
Fuels (petrol or diesel), oil, brake fluids, coolant, etc., must be removed from the vehicle before it can be safely scrapped. Fortunately, even these can be reused, as fuel can be used in other vehicles.
Brake fluid can be distilled, filtered, chemically refined to be resold, or neutralised and mixed into other fluids for fuel. Depollution also involves removing the airbags if they have not exploded, as well as the lead-acid batteries of ICEVs.
Most of the scrapping process is carefully dismantling a vehicle. Any components which were identified in the pre-check can now be sent for cleaning and re-selling. Everything else is stripped off into different sections, which can then be reused or sent for shredding, smelting, and recycling.
When disassembling an EV, the battery is taken out and sent away for its own specialised scrapping and recycling.
The final shell of the car is then crushed to make it easier to transport. It’s then sent away to foundries to be smelted down.
In this video, car enthusiast Jonny Smith is shown around one of the leading facilities involved in car recycling and reselling. The Charles Trent depot in Dorset uses a production-line method of disassembly.
This allows employees to salvage a car top to bottom and have any usable parts posted on eBay, ready to sell by the end of the same day.
Process of scrapping an EV battery
In a separate environment, technicians and mechanics can begin the process of disassembling an EV battery. This can be done manually or automatically. A manual disassembly looks like this.
If a battery is still functional, i.e. the car it came from was in a crash that did not harm the battery itself. Diagnostic tests can be done to see if the battery is healthy enough to go back into a vehicle as it is or with minor changes.
If a battery needs to be completely or slightly disassembled, all of the existing charge within it must be drained. This is essential to stop electrical hazards, explosions, or fires.
The battery is broken down into modules by removing the casing and fixtures. More checks are done at this stage to ensure no residual charge is in the batteries.
Lithium-ion battery packs consist of multiple individual battery modules. These are carefully separated from each other to prepare them for the next stepd.
The modules are drained of their electrolyte, which contains the lithium-ion solution. This is then collected for proper treatment and recycling.
Modules are made up of individual battery cells, so the next step is to remove these and prepare them for shredding.
Leftover material that will not be repurposed straight away is then sent for shredding and separation.
Once shredded, different methods are used to recover valuable materials. This includes lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, copper, and aluminium. Separation techniques may involve magnetic separation, sieving, froth flotation, and chemical treatments.
After that, recycling processes such as hydrometallurgy are used to salvage precious materials.
The landscape of EV e-waste
EV production is still new compared to ICEV. Even so, companies have made great strides to fight specific EV recycling problems.
Even so, only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled. This sends 8 million tonnes of e-waste to landfills around the world. In the UK, it’s predicted that between 20,000 - 30,000 tonnes of lithium batteries go to waste each year. According to some reports, this is enough to power the city of Birmingham for a day.
The environmental impact of this wastage is huge. Similar to lead-acid batteries, harmful chemicals leak into the soil and permanently damage its health. Additionally, unstable batteries can cause fires throughout landfill sites. This releases toxic pollutants into the air.
The environmental impact of importing lots of lithium, cobalt, and nickel should also be mentioned. The majority of the world’s lithium is taken from China. This involves transporting lithium via cargo ship, which can be dangerous if not stored right.
While EVs do not produce much pollution, the impact of mining and refining lithium does.
It’s estimated that lithium production generates 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 each year, or 15 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of lithium. In terms of water usage, around 2.2 million litres of water is needed to produce one tonne of lithium.
So why hasn’t more been done to fight this issue? The number of electric ELVs is set to rise within the next 10 years. It’s important to take steps now to make it easier to fix these problems in the future.
Methods for managing EV E-waste
Let’s investigate some of the existing and potential ways that the government, manufacturers, and waste recycling plants can take now to help stop these issues later.
Start planning at the design process
An important part of improving e-waste management comes from how parts are designed and assembled. This needs to be done years before they’re expected to be scrapped.
Degradation of materials over time is unavoidable. But how batteries or car parts are put together can make a big difference when it comes to dismantling, reselling, and scrapping.
There’s a running joke in the automotive industry that mechanics and engineers are at war with each other. Mechanics often run into structural issues when trying to disassemble a vehicle.
For example, being unable to unscrew a single bolt without taking off a large section of the engine first. This wastes both time and energy. It’s a problem that could have easily been solved if more thought had been put into how a vehicle is put together during the design process.
These issues arise due to tight deadlines and efforts to cut costs when making cars. This cannot afford to happen when it comes to developing and installing dangerous substances such as lithium-ion batteries.
For many EVs, such as a Tesla Model S, the battery makes up the undercarriage of the car’s frame, so it’s not easy to remove. It requires heavy machinery and high-powered tools to do.
Whilst it is possible to replace an EV battery, it’s often easier and just as cost-effective to buy a new car. But for people who like their car and only want the battery replaced, it’s important this process is made as easy as possible. This helps cut down waste in the long-run. This can be achieved by:
designing EVs with modular components that are easy to recycle
using fewer unnecessary fasteners that make it difficult to separate components during recycling
using standardised components throughout the industry
using less hazardous materials in the manufacturing process
Sustainable EV production comes from using easy-to-recycle materials. Building with recycled plastics can help reduce a car’s environmental impact.
Invest in resource recovery and recycling
Resource recovery is one of the best methods of recycling, as it means that up to 100% of a car is repurposed in some way. However, it’s a hard job that requires a lot of processes to separate the vehicle into its final materials.
Closed-loop recycling refers to a method where the recycled parts of a product immediately go back into creating new types of the same product. This means nothing is wasted or goes to the landfill.
There are many elements that go into making a car battery, including:
With the process of hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy, these resources can be taken from unused batteries and go on to develop new ones. They can also be taken from manufacturing failures and power sources which were never fit to go into a car in the first place.
Many of these elements are mined using bad practices such as child labour exploitation. Cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated that between 25,000 and 40,000 children are used to source this material, often being paid less than $2 per day.
By removing and reusing materials from existing cars, there is less pressure for new materials to be taken from mines. This is key when looking at the future production of EVs. It also increases the value of the products and extends their lifecycle. This means they are not thrown away after one use, which is a waste of money.
Two of the best methods for refining these materials from lithium-ion batteries are hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy - water and fire treatment, respectively.
Of these two, hydrometallurgy makes the best results, as nearly all (95%) of the elements can be recovered. Pyrometallurgy, however, helps refine elements like nickel and cobalt, but wastes most of the others.
When it comes to shredding a lithium-ion battery, normal techniques would likely result in an explosion or fire. To avoid this, some companies fill shredding compartments with liquid. This prevents any fire from starting. It also helps to separate the lightweight plastics that are churned up, while the heavier minerals and metals sink.
These minerals and metals become two types of e-waste called black mass and metallic foil. The plastics can then be collected and sold to be repurposed. Usually, the plastics are burned, but more efforts are being made to be more sustainable.
The majority of the important minerals are found in the black mass. This is the substance which undergoes hydrometallurgy or pyrometallurgy.
The process of hydrometallurgy is as follows.
Shredded black mass material is submerged in a chemical solution (commonly diluted sulfuric acid). This dissolves the valuable metals from the cathode materials. The resulting solution contains metal ions like lithium, cobalt, and nickel.
Separation and purification
Solvent extraction or ion exchange, are used to selectively separate and purify the metal ions from the leach solution.
Materials undergo electrowinning (extraction) to recover the valuable metals from the purified solutions.
Graphite and lithium are salvaged from the rest of the solution. This uses precipitation and solvent extraction, heating, or additional chemical extraction. For solid metals, cementation and oxidation methods can be used.
The recovered metals might need additional refining steps to achieve the desired purity and quality. This makes them suitable for reuse in new batteries or other applications.
The process of pyrometallurgy is as follows.
Shredded material may have to undergo pre-treatment, such as calcination. During this process, the material is heated to a high temperature in the presence of air or oxygen. This helps remove volatile components, burn off organic materials, and initiate chemical reactions that break down compounds.
Once treated, the material is heated to its melting point, breaking down from a solid into a liquid. The molten metal can then be separated from slag (non-metallic waste) based on their density and other properties.
The desired metal might still have certain impurities, so refining helps to purify it. This can be done through processes such as electrorefining or vacuum distillation. From there, metals such as nickel and cobalt can be extracted. The slag is sent away to be disposed of or refined further to extract any other desirable elements.
Unfortunately, a lot of the lithium from EV batteries is lost in this process due to its low boiling temperature. Also, pyrometallurgy takes a lot of energy, and contributes to high levels of CO2.
Full second-life use
When a battery is easily fixable but unsuitable for EV use, there are ways to give it a second life.
Battery degradation means that a car is unable to travel as far on a full battery charge over time. Once this happens and poses a significant impact on the rate of a car’s travel, the battery can be repurposed. It can be used for many additional, less energy-intensive uses. This includes:
direct repurposing: batteries from cars which have been written off can be transplanted directly into a new vehicle without much hassle
home energy storage: for homes which use renewable energy such as solar or wind power, repurposed EV batteries can be used to store excess energy for later use, like a backup generator
factory energy storage: in a similar vein, lithium batteries can be used en-masse at solar, wind, or hydro farms before being redistributed
e-mobility: energy cells within a battery can be repurposed and used for less intensive vehicles such as mobility scooters
This idea will hopefully grow in popularity as more homes are built to support renewable resources. More demand for manufacturers to repurpose their lithium batteries will also help.
Make sure the infrastructure is there in preparation
One of the best ways to tackle the future impact of e-waste is to make sure the right infrastructure is in place now. It should be able to manage the increase in the amount of end-of-life EV batteries.
This is something the Charles Trent depot mentioned earlier does extremely well. Their highly efficient process allows them to process 5,500 car parts per week - a huge achievement already. With the intention of opening another 5 facilities around the UK by 2030, they are aiming to process 300,000 vehicles per year.
Conventional recycling plants and scrapping facilities for cars don’t always cater to the specific needs of EVs. More education and training is required to ensure the safety of technicians as they disassemble EV car parts. They need to know things like how to drain a battery of its charge, and which solvents to use if they need to take the adhesive off individual cells.
Another great investment for the future would be AI tracking and the use of specialised robots. Incorporating advanced automation into recycling plants could significantly improve efficiency and accuracy in sorting processes. Automated systems would be trained to quickly identify and separate the desired materials. This would also help to protect workers from electrical hazards or burns.
Sensor technologies, such as X-ray scanners, spectrometers, and machine vision systems can enable more precise identification and separation of different materials. This includes battery components with varying chemistries. These materials can be scanned and tracked, making sure that everything goes to where it should be and hazardous content is dealt with correctly.
The popularity rise in EVs didn’t happen spontaneously. It’s the product of years of global concerns about climate change, resource scarcity, and technological innovation.
EVs aren’t a self-contained product. To develop a strong, sustainable system, collaboration is needed among governments, manufacturers, recycling industries, and research institutions. They need to come together to develop effective e-waste management solutions.
Here are a few suggestions on how to improve going forward.
The standardisation of recycling processes would lead to a greater understanding of necessary practices. This would help ensure the safety of workers, and the methods used to make the most of an EV. Even independent plants operate differently to one another, the groundwork should be put in place to ensure all sites operate at the minimum desired level.
We have seen this already in the UK with the 85% recycling law for vehicles. Similar targets should be set to ensure that as much of a lithium-ion battery can be harvested and recycled as possible.
At the moment, this is an average of 50%. An initial benchmark of 40% recyclability would be an excellent place to start on a nation-wide scale. Then, as technology increases, the percentage figure should increase until it’s possible to achieve 60 or 70%.
Governments can provide incentives and funding for research, infrastructure development, and recycling initiatives. This added financial help can encourage greater implementation of sustainable e-waste management practices. This includes take-back programs aimed at ensuring ELVs are collected and disposed of correctly. This could involve partnerships with local recycling centres or waste management facilities.
Moreover, manufacturers could provide incentives for consumers to return old EV batteries. This makes it more convenient for them to participate in responsible disposal.
Continued research and development in technology can lead to batteries that are easier to recycle and have longer lifespans. Innovations in battery chemistry, material selection, and manufacturing processes can contribute to reducing e-waste generation.
We’ve begun to see this in the development of sodium-based batteries which use minerals that are easier to source and less damaging to the environment. Currently, they do not have the range that lithium batteries do, but this is liable to change in the future.
Raising awareness among consumers about the importance of responsible e-waste management is crucial. Educational campaigns can inform the public about the environmental and health risks associated with improper disposal of EV batteries and encourage them to participate in recycling programs.
It can also help them find the best alternative options when it comes to cars, such as how to replace parts or swap out batteries rather than buying an entirely new model.
What comes next?
There’s a lot of scepticism about which direction the EV industry will take. Without the right teamwork between manufacturers, governmental organisations, and EV business developers, nothing will progress as it should.
Already, too many EV cars are on the road without easy accessibility to charging stations. The correct measures have not been put in place to allow them to succeed.
Additionally, the cost of buying an electric car is hard for anyone on an income of around £35,000 or less. Even second-hand EVs fetch nearly double the price of second-hand ICEVs.
This may be good for the first few years as it allows industries to work on developing recycling plants, adding new charging stations, and slowly decreasing the initial cost of EVs. But more needs to be done to account for the increase in EV drivers. If global leaders want to reach Net-Zero carbon emissions by 2050, they need to be willing to invest more in the infrastructure and recycling practices that will allow them to do so.