Mythbusting the world of EVs: are electric cars hard to recycle?
It’s true that an electric car is harder to recycle than one with an engine. Traditional scrap metal recycling is easy, and combustion cars have big steel bodies and chunky aluminium drivetrain castings. Whereas the components and minerals in the motors, electronics and batteries of electric cars are harder to tease apart.
But not impossible. Because those elements are worth a lot, it’s worth doing. Also, digging lithium out of the ground might eventually have to stop because it’ll run out. Closed-loop recycling won’t.
JB Straubel, the man who basically invented Tesla’s significant hardware and made it work, now has a company, Redwood Materials, to do exactly this. Northvolt, the company perhaps on pole position for supplying EV batteries in Europe, is adding a recycling plant. Renault is repurposing Flins, a historic factory for making cars, into one that unmakes them.
Gradually the processes for doing this will be improved. At the moment there are two. Pyrometallurgy uses heat and so takes energy, which needs to be renewable. Hydrometallurgy uses chemicals, so they have to clean up the waste.
Recycling will get easier as batteries improve. Carmakers are designing them with recycling in mind, so they will be able to benefit from cheaper materials down the line. Solid state batteries will also be easier to process than today’s gel-based packs.
Many of these processors expect to take back your old phones and other e-waste too. A useful side benefit of the money invested in softening the car’s environmental impact.