UN: Recycling Rates For Key Green Car Elements Below 1%

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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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  • Protomech Protomech on Jun 02, 2011

    "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.

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    • Charly Charly on Jun 04, 2011

      @Edward Niedermeyer 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.

  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Jun 02, 2011

    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.

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    • M 1 M 1 on Jun 03, 2011

      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).

  • Marc Marc on Jun 02, 2011

    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.

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    • Marc Marc on Jun 03, 2011

      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.

  • JennyHop JennyHop on Sep 23, 2011

    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!