Will we be able to recycle electric cars?

With plans for one-million EVs on roads in 10 years, what happens to the ones that get scrapped?

You may be surprised to learn that we do, actually, already recycle old cars. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You may be surprised to learn that we do, actually, already recycle old cars. Photograph: Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Electric car sales are rising; that much is certain right now. Not just rising, but there is the Government commitment (still being stuck to, apparently) that 950,000 electric vehicles (EVs) will be on Irish roads by the end of the next decade.

Or, in other words, nigh-on 90,000 EV sales every year between now and 2030. Quite apart from the obvious problems (most EVs are too expensive to be within the reach of most car buyers, plus the market for new cars is currently holed below the waterline anyway) there’s another question to address – how do we recycle electric cars?

You may be surprised to learn that we do, actually, already recycle old cars. In fact, out of 150,000 cars sent for scrap in 2017, 87 per cent of their components were recovered for reuse and recycling. That figure comes fromELV Environmental Services (Elves ) a non-profit organisation that draws together the motor trade and recycling industry to ensure that old cars are not just squashed and left aside.

Tricky

Elves is now turning its collective mind to the issue of recycling electric cars. It seems as if, on the face of it, that might be easier. After all, EVs are mechanically simpler than conventional cars with their oils, their fuels, and their dirtied-up mechanical parts. Just whip out the battery and the job’s done, right?

Well, inevitably, no. It’s trickier than that and Elves is going to be running a series of training days for authorised treatment facilities (ATFs – what we used to call scrap yards) looking to upskill for the new electric era.

According to Elves environmental compliance manager Elena Wrelton, “Elves is very much committed to ensuring that all ATFs across Ireland have access to bespoke and relevant expertise, support, information and training programmes that are industry specific and pro-actively address key issues impacting the sector. It is of critical importance that those working in the industry are equipped with the resources available to be fully confident and competent in dealing with the correct reuse and recycling of all types of vehicles.”

Okay, so what do we mean by correct? Well, according to Elves training experts, it’ll take time to work out exactly what’s needed for each vehicle type and model. “How long it takes to remove the industrial battery depends on the location of the battery, its size and the shut-down procedure and these vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. A full electric vehicle also probably has full climate control of the battery, so this also must be factored in when depolluting the vehicle” an Elves spokesperson told The Irish Times.

“Otherwise, there are fewer fluids to remove – none from the engine, of course – but this can be offset by the size and weight of the battery. Given that this is new technology for ATFs, research would be required on the procedure for that make and model before removal of the battery, and it is likely to add time to the depollution process.”

So it’s not easy, and sadly at the moment taking the battery out doesn’t mean that you can automatically reuse it in other applications (such as wall-mounted batteries for domestic or commercial supply). Elves admits that this is a challenge. While you can strip-down a battery and re-use some of its components, at the moment the recycling rate is about 55-60 per cent of the battery parts, well below the 85 per cent minimum target.

Hybrid cars, and plugin-hybrids, present other difficulties. While, arguably, they’re actually better overall for the environment (and certainly more affordable) than their fully electric cousins, they present the worst of both worlds when it comes to recycling.

‘Easier to handle’

“The batteries in hybrid cars tend to be smaller in size and voltage than those in electric cars, and may also be nickel metal hydride rather than lithium ion in composition, which makes them easier to handle. The battery in hybrids being smaller in size and voltage and potentially of a different chemistry means there is less manual handling and different health and safety risks related to the battery for the ATF to manage,” the Elves spokesperson told us.

Sadly, though, it gets harder from there: “For a hybrid car, the depollution process would the same as a full EV but you would also have an internal combustion engine to depollute. In a hybrid, there may also be multiple cooling systems, for the engine, inverter and possibly for the battery, so this does increase the complexity of the vehicle depollution process.”

The real question, though, is will we be ready? If that huge number of EVs really does come on stream according to the Government’s schedule (let’s be optimistic, shall we?), will we have enough recycling centres in the country, trained and ready to deal with this influx of electrics?

The answer, according to Elves , is we will try, but much depends on the ramp-up speed: “The Electric Elves programme is designed to meet the current and future needs of ATFs related to these types of vehicles and is focused on awareness, safe handling and how to access further information and support when they do receive an EV. Given the likely increase, but also the uncertainty as to the speed at which this will happen, Elves will be continually evaluating the programme, and making required changes to ensure it is fit for purpose.”

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