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SMMT report electric car sales soar – but how will they be recycled?

What will become of EVs as they get older and have to be scrapped?Electric car sales are soaring. On 13th April 2019 The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reported that the number of plug-in electric cars grew by 76.6% in 2018, with 195,000 vehicles now on British roads. Overall ownership of alternatively-fuelled vehicles (AFVs) increased by almost 30% last year with more than 620,000 hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric cars now in use.

See the ‘SMMT report on rise in plug-in electric and AFV vehicles in 2018’ here.

But what will become of these electric vehicles as they get older and have to be scrapped?

Currently 1.8 million cars a year are scrapped in the UK, with their average age being 10-16 years.

CarTakeBack is the UK’s largest scrap car recycling company with a network of over 300 scrap car recycling centres. It is currently prepared for handling electric vehicles and is heavily involved in future planning for recycling these vehicles in far greater numbers. Projects include research into techniques for battery dismantling and plans to support a UK based EV battery recycling plant. CarTakeBack representatives also sit on various collaborative university and industry research project boards in their capacity as expert advisors for the end of life vehicle (ELV) industry.

Ken Byng, Senior Manager at CarTakeBack said: “Over the past 18 months electric vehicles (EVs) have comprised less than 1% of our customer enquiries,” He added: “However we are expecting this to grow exponentially from 2019 onwards as the increasing number of EVs purchased over the years grow older and reach the end of their lives.”

There are key differences in the way that petrol/diesel and electric vehicles are recycled, the most significant one being battery recycling.

Petrol and diesel car batteries

Most of the batteries used for petrol and diesel cars are of the standard 12 volt lead acid type, their primary function being to start the engine. The lead is straightforward to extract and has a fairly consistent positive monetary value, meaning that the costs involved in recycling them can generally be recouped. Lead acid batteries can be recycled in the UK.

Electric car batteries – currently no UK based recycling facility

The majority of electric vehicles currently use high voltage lithium-ion batteries to power their movement alongside the standard 12 volt lead acid batteries used primarily to maintain their safety systems. Unlike lead acid batteries they are expensive to safely recycle.

There is currently no UK based recycling facility for lithium-ion batteries and they have to be exported to mainland Europe. This is a significant challenge as they need to be transported as hazardous materials under the Carriage of Dangerous Goods Regulations (CDR) in the UK and ADR in mainland Europe. This is both costly and complex in terms of customs regulations and necessary documentation.

CarTakeBack has formed a partnership with a national battery transportation company with links to recyclers in mainland Europe and is supporting an early stage pilot for a UK based EV battery recycling plant.

EV Batteries and Brexit

The current uncertainty around Brexit extends to electric vehicle battery recycling.

“Much depends on the nature of the eventual deal,” says Ken Byng. “But at CarTakeBack we believe that when it comes to transporting lithium-ion batteries for recycling to mainland Europe there is a risk that added layers of bureaucracy will be introduced into what is already quite rightly a tightly controlled process. Should this happen we would expect to see increases in cost for what is even now an expensive operation, as well as significant delays for transporting these batteries. We, along with most businesses involved in trading with our EU partners will be watching developments closely.”

Recycling electric cars requires specific techniques and training

There are potential risks for scrap car recycling centre staff when handling of end of life electric vehicles and their batteries. These include:

  • intense fire (which cannot be extinguished by conventional means)
  • electrocution of staff during dismantling
  • injury to staff with who have pacemakers fitted. The powerful magnets used in electric vehicle components can affect the pacemaker
  • exposure of staff to respiratory irritation from fumes arising from leaking electrolyte fluid
  • exposure of staff to skin or eye irritation from leaking electrolyte fluid
  • injury of staff during vehicle movement due to unexpected weight distribution

CarTakeBack has invested in training for its staff and network partners to enable them to safely handle electric vehicles. It is important that the entire scrap car recycling industry has the correct safety regulations firmly in place and adhered to in order to protect their workers.

Crackdown on illegal operators needed

Legislation in 2003 ruled that scrap cars should only be disposed of at scrap car recycling centres with an Authorised Treatment Facility (ATF) licence. The aim was to ensure that vehicles were recycled in an environmentally friendly manner with toxic materials such as fluids and batteries being disposed of safely. The intention was also to reduce the amount going to landfill. The current target, set in 2015 is for 95% by weight of a car to be recycled. All of CarTakeBack’s recycling centres are licensed ATFs and the company reached the 95% recycling target two years early.

The ATF licence requires businesses to invest substantially in the necessary equipment, buildings and sealed drainage systems to recycle cars properly. However despite the fact it is a criminal offence to recycle a scrap car without an ATF licence an estimated 600,000 of the 1.8 million vehicles that are scrapped each year are slipping through the net and ending up at unlicensed scrapyards run by illegal operators. These operators are only interested in extracting the scrap metal and any other items of value from the car. They cut costs by not having proper procedures to depollute cars safely, which means toxic fluids may be emptied into water courses and hazardous materials go to landfill. Their illegal practices put the environment at risk and creates an uneven playing field for the ethically responsible companies.

With the prospect of more EVs needing to be recycled it is now becoming even more important to tackle the problem of unlicensed scrapyards. Illegal operators will not be able to make money from the lithium-ion batteries and would incur costs to dispose of them, which means that the batteries are likely to end up being fly-tipped, releasing hazardous chemicals into the ground, air and water supply.

Illegal operators are also unlikely to have proper safety procedures in place, so staff at their sites are more likely to be at risk from injury or electrocution when handling electric vehicles and their batteries.

CarTakeBack and the future of recycling electric and hybrid vehicles

“CarTakeBack is actively meeting the challenges the industry faces, including the recycling of electric and hybrid vehicles,” says Ken Byng. “We are also working together with industry partners, designers and universities in exploring issues such as how electric vehicles can be designed with recycling in mind – making the dismantling, re-use of parts and recycling as efficient as possible.”

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