By on June 2, 2011

A report by UNEP [PDF here], the UN’s environmental body, finds that recycling rates for some of the key ingredients in EV and Hybrid cars are woefully low. The chart above shows “functional recycling rates” for 60 metals, and the rate for such key elements in the production of EV and Hybrid batteries and magnets as Lithium, Vanadium, Lanthanum, Neodymium, Dysprosium, all have recycling rates of 1% or lower. Not only do many of these elements have the potential for creating ecological damage, but many (especially the so-called “rare earth elements”) are considered relatively scarce…. and not recycling exacerbates both of these issues. But, notes the report, the complex fusion of elements used in both batteries and EV magnets could present huge challenges in ever improving these rates of recycling.

Where relatively high EOL-RR [End Of Life Rates of Recycling] are derived, the impression might be given that the metals in question are being used more efficiently than those with lower rates. In reality, rates tend to reflect the degree to which materials are used in large amounts in easily recoverable applications (e. g., lead in batteries, steel in auto- mobiles), or where high value is present (e. g., gold in electronics). In contrast, where materials are used in small quantities in complex products (e. g., tantalum in electronics), or where the economic value is at present not very high, recycling is technically much more challenging.

Hat Tip: Auto123

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14 Comments on “UN: Recycling Rates For Key Green Car Elements Below 1%...”


  • avatar
    protomech

    “In contrast, where materials are used in small quantities in complex products”

    Not the case in car batteries, certainly. This is more for things like small disposable devices produced en mass containing small amounts of potentially recyclable material.

    “In reality, rates tend to reflect the degree to which materials are used in large amounts in easily recoverable applications (e. g., lead in batteries, steel in auto- mobiles), or where high value is present (e. g., gold in electronics).”

    Toyota will buy any end-of-life’d Prius battery for $200. Noone is land-filling these batteries. Not many get sold to Toyota, as they can be rebuilt or disassembled and reused (repurposing Prius batteries into a Honda Insight is not uncommon).

    I don’t know how recoverable the rare earth materials from an EV motor will be. My suspicion is that the motors are likely to be large and the quantity of rare earth materials will be relatively high, facilitating the recovery of those materials.

    In other words: the rate at which those materials are recycled will likely go up as more EVs leave the road.

    • 0 avatar

      “Not the case in car batteries, certainly. This is more for things like small disposable devices produced en mass containing small amounts of potentially recyclable material.”

      As the quote I pulled points out, lead-acid isn’t the issue. Lithium and other non-lead acid chemistries use combinations and polymers of different elements in each cell. Certain elements are used just in the membranes of battery cells. Recycling all that is no joke.

      I agree with your general argument that more EVs could lead to better recycling, but only if this kind of research is widely read and the scope of the global challenge in this area is understood. The point of this piece is not to argue that EVs are secretly “anti-green” but that EV makers and boosters need to be looking at this issue carefully, especially if they’re using a lot of “green” messaging in their marketing.

      • 0 avatar
        charly

        How long is the time between a car being build and it ending in a junk yard. 15 years or so. Was the Prius even sold 15 years ago? You can’t recycle what isn’t junked yet.

      • 0 avatar
        Brian P

        Priuses have been written-off in collisions almost from the very beginning, no different from any other car.

        There is a deeper issue here that has nothing to do with a vehicle’s powertrain. The auto industry has gone to great lengths to mark parts (particularly plastics) with the material that they are made of, to aid in recycling. Making use of this requires that the car be carefully disassembled and parts unbolted and sorted according to that marking. That is not happening. Junkyards sell whatever parts they can get worthwhile money for and squash the rest – steel, glass, plastic, aluminum, whatever. Then a shredder fishes out the magnetic portion (steel, and not stainless steel) and not much else.

        I’m thinking that electronic chips are almost un-recyclable.

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        Brian: You are correct.

        Integrated circuits (“chips”) are essentially non-recyclable.

        They’re (especially the FPGAs and custom silicon) essentially impossible to re-use (even if they’re not completely custom, the cost of removing them without destroying them is more than it’ worth).

        They contain some silicon, but silicon isn’t very valuable, especially when it’s in a tiny piece.

        The casing is worthless plastic. Etc.

      • 0 avatar
        charly

        But the fact that junkyards shred is a government policy. Make it illegal and it will happen in the right way as that is profiable but more expensive.

      • 0 avatar
        charly

        Brain,

        most cars don’t end their life in a collision and the hybrid drive parts are parts that survive collisions and are financial interesting for re-use.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    I believe in recycling, but everybody has to make money in order for it to make sense. Extracting small amounts of ‘rare-earth’ elements is very costly, and therefore they aren’t as rare as the term indicates if it’s cheaper to just get new stuff from the ground.

    In these cases, the issue will come down to labor cost, and there are hideous situations in China, India, and Africa where recycling exacts a terrible toll on the people doing the work (virtually slave labor), since they are exposed to all manner of hazardous substances and workplace hazards as well.

    This article has quite a bit to say on the subject:
    http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2006/04/10/ewaste

    Although the UN is a completely worthless and corrupt organization, it should consider whether the human and environmental toll of recycling such materials is really worth it. They mention this challenge on p22 of the report, without comment. The Truth About Recycling Rare Materials is that it can only be done economically in countries that don’t care about human health, the environment, or wages.

    • 0 avatar
      vww12

      «and therefore they aren’t as rare as the term indicates if it’s cheaper to just get new stuff from the ground»

      +++ absolutely!

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      That Salon article is very out of date. It is now quite difficult to “dump” that kind of waste in most of the places they name. I know somebody who handled a lot of the vessel bookings for that sort of business, and places like Nigeria have really cracked down on it in recent years. I don’t know where it’s done now, but it isn’t China or Africa. I wouldn’t be too surprised if it’s still going on in India, though, that place is still as backwards as they come.

      I do have to argue with your comment suggesting the rarity of “rare earths” is more a question of their economic value than actual rarity. (They’re also poorly named… they aren’t “rare” in the scarcity sense, but they are “rare” in the sense that they do not exist in “mineable” concentrations.) The 17 minerals which are classified this way are almost all sourced from China, which happens to have the nearest approximation to concentrated deposits, and lately they have been shutting down exports early into the year according to a quota system they apply. I think TTAC even re-ran some articles on this topic around the end of last year, and at the time western industries were projecting China would reduce world supply by up to 30% this year compared to last. (I suspect the disasters in Japan may have relaxed the strain on supply.) But it has been a growing issue for all categories of electronics manufacturers for several years now.

      I do agree with your main point about the economic viability of recycling, though. “Green” types seem to have a total disregard for the cost of their utopian ideology (and often, simple inconvenient facts like physics — the efficiency of solar panels and the like).

  • avatar
    marc

    Let’s be clear here and not disingenuous. I only skimmed the article, but it does not appear to be about cars. The rare earths and metals in cars represent but a tiny fraction of their uses throughout the world. The UN is not saying that only 1% of these rare earths and metals are being recycled from EVs, hybrids, but 1% from all applications. This is a worldwide phenomenon, not something we can blame on Prii and Volts. It is very possible that recycling rates from cars is much higher.

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      Perhaps you shouldn’t skim and assume, then.

      The *article* is definitely about cars. The UNEP report itself is not car-specific, but if you read Appendix A which describes the primary uses for each element, you’ll find that the auto industry is pretty clearly one of the biggest consumers of nearly all of these elements.

    • 0 avatar
      marc

      I guess I’ve been schooled….NOT…

      Appendix A mentions automotive applications very few times. “Batteries” does not equate to HEV, PHEV, or EV batteries.

      Nice try.

  • avatar
    JennyHop

    Green Car idea sounds pretty cool and I would love to own it myself, but why no one ever speaks of the costs and the price of owning one?

    http://www.wisecarshopper.com/blog/

    I was surprised that someone did! Check out this article, I am sure you will like it!


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