Boosting circular economy in the automotive sector

New vehicles are responsible for around ten percent of plastic demand in the EU, and the automotive sector is the number one consumer of raw materials like aluminum, magnesium, platinum group metals, and rare earth elements. A new set of provisions, proposed by the European Commission last week to revise the EU End-of-Life Vehicles Directive, intends to enhance the circularity of the automotive sector. Empa researchers played a crucial role in defining the content of this new proposal.
Thanks to new proposed EU policy measures, valuable materials in end-of-life vehicles could be reused and recycled to a large extent. (Image: AdobeStock)

Every year, over six million vehicles in Europe reach the end of their life. Inadequate handling of these vehicles results in lost value and pollution. A recent evaluation of existing EU legislation regulating the area has shown that considerable improvements were needed to boost the transition of the automotive sector to a circular economy, thereby reducing the environmental impact linked to the production and end-of-life treatment of vehicles, and strengthening the sustainability of the automotive and recycling industry in Europe.

New vehicles entering the market are responsible for around ten percent of plastic demand and nine percent of copper demand in the EU. What's more, the automotive industry relies on more than 60 different raw materials. The shift towards electric cars will bring additional challenges as it will increase the need for palladium and other precious metals required for embedded electronics, as well as for copper and rare earth elements used in the permanent magnets (REPM) of most electric drive motors. According to EU estimates, the demand for the rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium from new cars is expected to increase to about 4025 tons and 620 tons, respectively, which would correspond to a 10- and 7-fold increase compared to 2020.

On the other hand, less than 20 percent of the plastic fractions recovered from end-of-life vehicles are currently recycled, and critical raw materials (CRM) such as rare earth elements in electric drive motors or palladium in embedded electronics are generally not recovered at all. The challenge is therefore to increase the recovery of CRM and other materials from relevant components and materials prior to the current practice of shredding end-of-life vehicles.

A "Swiss Approach" on electronics embedded in end-of-life vehicles

Since several years, researchers from Empa's Technology and Society Laboratory in St. Gallen led by Patrick Wäger support the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) in improving the recycling of cars and electronics through various science-for-policy projects. A recently completed project explored the possibility of removing and separately recycling embedded electronic devices from end-of-life vehicles from a technical, environmental, and economic perspective.

The outcomes of this study as well as previous ones served as a basis to define which devices should be separately removed and recycled in the context of the recently revised Swiss Ordinance on the Bring back, Take back and Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The new provisions stipulate that embedded electronic devices in end-of-life vehicles should be removed and recycled separately when it is economically supportable and environmentally meaningful. While the concrete specifications are still being elaborated, this makes Switzerland a pioneer in adapting its legislation to promote the recycling of embedded electronic devices.

Towards a new End-of-life Vehicles Directive for the European Union

Considering their expertise, the Empa researchers have been invited by the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission to contribute to an initial analysis of selected measures to improve the circularity of CRM and other materials in passenger cars, along with the German Öko-Institut e.V. and Chalmers University in Sweden. The collaboration resulted in a joint report including a socio-economic and environmental evaluation of each of these measures and a set of recommendations.

Following the report's recommendations, the European Commission published a proposal of a new End-of-Life Vehicles Directive on July 13. The proposal includes, among others, four policy provisions aiming at increasing the recycling and reuse of components containing CRM and other materials (e.g. rare earth elements, copper and palladium) in new vehicles, covering both design and end-of-life phases.

According to these provisions

  • electric vehicles would have to be designed to allow the removal of their electric drive motor, so that it could be repaired and reused.
  • manufacturers would have to inform recyclers of the CRM used in their vehicles, and clearly label certain components containing these materials.
  • removing the electric drive motor before shredding an electric vehicle would become mandatory.
  • likewise, removing certain electronic components (such as infotainment systems and inverters) before shredding a vehicle would become mandatory, following the principle adopted in the new Swiss Ordinance on the Return and Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment.

"Removing embedded electronics from end-of-life vehicles and treating them in E-waste recycling facilities offers a double advantage for the environment", says Empa scientist Charles Marmy who co-authored the JRC report and led projects on separate recycling of embedded electronics. "It not only significantly increases the recovery of metals and plastics to yield secondary raw materials, but also limits the quantities of waste to be incinerated by doing so, thus reducing CO2 emissions."