For decades Scrap Yards have been a common edge-of-town feature where you could get rid of a problem and earn a couple of tenners into the bargain. It was recycling as it started out, separating the tyres, batteries and engines from defunct cars and vans and dramatically crushing the bodywork into neat cubes of mixed up metal.
Then the canny and knowledgeable could poke around for useable spare parts for their own vehicles and negotiate a fair price for their finds. Once when I was starting up in business we even managed to get a whole useable Maestro car engine and fitted it into the Maestro van where the cylinders had eventually burned through. It went from an immobile wreck to the fastest van on the road after that!
Not any longer – apart from the Health & Safety considerations of spanner wielding punters burrowing through piled up heaps of vehicles, the merchants realised they could gain badly needed added-value for useable spare parts if they recovered and warranted them. Then legislation aimed at reducing pollution required the removal of residual fuel, air condition gasses, hydraulic fluid, sodium azide in the air bags and sump oil before crushing came along. The lead-acid batteries now go to specialised recyclers and the old tyres are treated to separate the wire structure, the fabric and the rubber.
Now modern “car breakers” work with the various manufacturers to set up “disassembly lines” to reverse the processes in the factories. In the USA 75% of a car can usually be recycled, but in Europe, where manufacturers are now building recyclability into their products, this percentage is already far higher – with one UK vehicle recycler claiming they are nearly at 96%. A key factor in all this is the efficient handling of electrical waste, where small permanent magnet motors – found also in hand-held electrical tools – often include alloys containing rare metals such as neodymium, dydprosium and turbium.
EVs present different problems of course, with the batteries by far the most valuable component and the rest of the vehicle relatively simple. Therefore to make money recycling EVs, you really have to be effective at refurbishing or recycling those batteries – and this is not so simple. However the big car manufacturers, especially VW, are working hard to set up cost-effective recycling techniques and equipment. One independent Swedish company, Northvolt, is gearing up both to manufacture lithium ion batteries and also to recycle old ones, in association with automotive partners including VW. And in the UK a new recycling start up based on an existing EV charger firm in Malvern, is also in hot pursuit with a plan to identified the small number failed component units that cause failures in EV batteries and rebuild the batteries with with then replaced by new units.
High value parts such as electronic modules, alternators, starter motors, infotainment systems, gear boxes, engines and the steel frames can still hold a lot of potential value – enough to justify putting resource into their recovery.
However the big benefits will arise from smarter design and an established circular economy for motor vehicles and the industry is already heavily committed to working with recyclers to achieve just that!