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EV recycling strategy needs some work

Feb 03, 2024Feb 03, 2024

When Ford launched the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup nearly a decade ago, employees at the company's manufacturing operations collected, sorted and returned the scrap metal to Ford's aluminum suppliers for recycling.

The spinoff effects of that "closed loop" process, which Ford is still using, are many. It reduces Ford's raw material costs. It cuts demand for virgin aluminum, which in turn helps keep carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere. And it also gives Ford some pricing flexibility on the F-150.

Here, in the early days of the electric vehicle era, that same kind of innovative thinking is needed to reduce the massive waste created by battery-electric vehicles.

Reuters reported recently that even minor damage to a vehicle's battery pack often prompts insurance companies to total the car. Insurance companies can't take the risk of an accident-repaired EV catching fire.

There's also a lot of waste in the EV manufacturing process. The number of unusable cells produced at battery plants is as high as 15 percent at some facilities, David Klanecky, CEO of Cirba Solutions, told me on a recent visit to the company's suburban Detroit battery recycling center.

Cirba collects cells and complete EV battery packs from automakers, dealers' service departments, scrapyards and battery manufacturers. The cells and packs are trucked to one of Cirba's six facilities for disassembly. The parts are sorted, and then the components are shipped elsewhere to be recycled.

The giant boxes of wiring harnesses, circuit boards, brackets and other EV components awaiting recycling at Cirba are an eye-popping sight.

Automakers and insurance companies could be doing a far better job repurposing good used parts. Could automakers do a better job of designing and engineering EVs for recyclability? By that, I mean using more of the manufactured parts from wrecked vehicles for service and accident repairs.

Doing so would reduce waste, cut the costs of repair bills and keep even more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Think about the journey one wiring harness or circuit board makes. It is manufactured from raw materials, shipped to an automaker, assembled into a car and then sold to a customer. It is designed to last the life of the vehicle, let's say 12-15 years. If the vehicle is wrecked and totaled, it comes apart.

On some packs, Klanecky said, Cirba separates good cells from damaged ones for reuse. If the metal structure that holds the batteries is undamaged, it may go back to the manufacturer for reuse. The rest is recycled. The lithium and other components in an EV battery are recycled or reused. "We're recovering about 95 percent of the materials from the battery," Klanecky said. But there's a lot of leftover parts that could go right back to a vehicle manufacturer or to a body shop for reuse.

There is no process to test used wiring harnesses, circuit boards and other parts removed from the EV battery packs to see if they can be reused, Klanecky told me. Even if there were, he said, it would still be cheaper to recycle these parts instead of reusing them. And, he said, there are also safety concerns. Right now, the economics of reusing perfectly good secondhand parts just don't add up, Klanecky said.

Cirba officials says it is cheaper to recycle used parts than it is to test them and make sure they are undamaged.

He said that as EVs gradually grow in volume, reusing some parts that today are being recycled might become more practical and better for the environment. "Anytime you save parts and reuse them over again it's going to have a C02 impact," Klanecky said.

But we are a long way from that, and right now automakers and insurance companies are being extremely cautious about how EVs get repaired.

"For an insurance company to say, 'OK, we are going to pay David's company to go and test those harnesses and recertify them and take the liability.' If, for some reason there is a short and the car catches fires and someone dies, it's a big risk. You've got to be 100 percent right."

It's clear there is much to be learned in managing the whole EV ecosystem.

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