As electric vehicles (EVs) become more popular, what will happen to all those dead lithium-ion batteries once they are off the road? And how will the automotive recycling industry cope? Matthew Beecham talked to Tom Rumboll, CEO of Synetiq, an integrated salvage and vehicle recycling company, to discover how the rise in EVs is set to not only transform what’s on our roads, but also the recycling industry.
What challenges does the rise in electrified vehicles present to salvage and recycling companies?
As the number of vehicles that feature some level of electrification increases, so do those that are involved in incidents and which are no longer deemed fit for the road. Although the numbers involved are significantly less than ICE vehicles, we have witnessed a steady increase of EVs coming into our facilities.
With ever-increasing air quality legislation driving a shift to cleaner cars and manufacturers investing heavily in the technology to offer a greater selection of electrified vehicles, we can only see this growing. Our throughput, and that of the industry, mirrors consumer car-buying trends, so when there’s mass adaption of EVs that will soon transfer to the greater requirement for EV processing and, as these vehicles become older and are no longer covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, increased demand for quality, recycled ‘Green Parts’.
There’s already confusion over how an EV needs to be processed and, most importantly, what the safety implications are.
In our view, the main issue is that in the huge push to put EVs on the road, the end-of-life cycle has not been as heavily considered as it should have been. The relatively low numbers of EVs in use means the impact of this hasn’t yet been significantly felt in the industry, but there’s already confusion over how an EV needs to be processed and, most importantly, what the safety implications are. For example, some premium electric vehicles carry as much as 400 volts DC, which could be catastrophic if handled incorrectly.
A recycling centre also has to shoulder the considerable cost of being able to accommodate the processing of an EV in terms of educating employees, having the right equipment and upgrading facilities. All operatives need to be suitably trained to isolate the battery before work can be carried out on removing components from the vehicle.
On top of this, and in terms of revenue, there’s also the issue that an EV takes away the availability of the engine and gearbox – the two best-selling items that have the highest worth – so there’s the question of how this revenue can be replaced.
How is the industry adapting to meet these challenges?
It’s taking notice, but until there’s high demand for reclaimed EV components and while it’s unclear how certain components can be recycled, some businesses are understandably reluctant to make the financial commitment that having the capacity to offer EV processing requires. As an industry leader, we have been able to demonstrate how a recycling facility can adapt to accommodate increased numbers of electrified vehicles.
It’s something we’ve seen coming for some time and five years ago went through a benchmarking process with ZF, to set the standards and end-of-life protocol. Most recently, we have made a significant investment in our Winsford site, transforming it into the UK’s first facility with dedicated EV and hybrid dismantling capability.
It showcases EV-specific measures that are required to competently process such advanced vehicles, including de-pollution ramps and quarantine areas for the handling of compromised battery packs. We’ve also invested in the correct training and, notably, have an employee who has achieved the highest officially recognised level in working on electric vehicles. To further safeguard personnel, we are currently working with a major garage equipment supplier in developing a discharge unit that reduces the voltage in the batteries to a safe working level to eliminate the risk of shock to the dismantler.
Although the infancy of electrified vehicles means the majority are still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty and reclaimed parts sales will be slow to begin with, it is likely that recyclers will be able to use the value of the battery to recoup the revenue that a conventional engine and gearbox would provide. Of course, some batteries remain the property of the manufacturer, but for those that don’t there is already some demand in the marketplace for certain types, mainly for repurposing for marine use with the conversion of boats to electric power.
What are the differences in recycling an electrified vehicle to a conventional ICE vehicle?
Once the battery is safely removed, then an EV can be treated as any other vehicle.
Handling the battery is the big difference, not only in its safe removal but also where it is stored and, when sold, how it is transported. Isolating the battery needs to be carried out in a specific controlled environment wearing suitable PPE with the correct electrical safety tools. We keep batteries in a standalone, purpose-built container away from the general population of vehicles, which contains the fire risk should there be an ignition. If a customer buys a battery, then it can only be transported by a qualified haulier with the relevant hazardous load qualifications. However, once the battery is safely removed, then an EV can be treated as any other vehicle. Ninety-eight percent of a conventional ICE-powered car can be recycled and an EV offers similar potential.
What is the most recycled electrified vehicle?
Since 2015, the Mk2 Toyota Prius has been our most frequently processed hybrid and most popular green parts donor vehicle. According to data from GoCompare, the Toyota Prius is the UK’s most accident-prone car, being involved in 111 incidents for every 10,000 examples on the road. When you consider how long the Toyota Prius has been around – the first examples being built in 1997 – and the fact that a vast number are used for private high in congested urban areas, it’s little surprise that it tops the chart of the most recycled electrified vehicles.
Does the situation present an opportunity for the salvage industry?
Absolutely. Technologies and manufacturing techniques will continue to evolve, but the need to reuse and recycle vehicles will remain. Now is the ideal time for those in the industry to invest in their ability to process EVs and ready themselves for future demand. There’s no easy or cheap way to prepare, but having the ability to recycle EVs will eventually be essential if a recycler is to stay in business and optimise the available revenue streams. Not only is it an exciting time in terms of change in the type of vehicle we recycle, but also in how our industry can fit into the wider picture of sustainability. When everybody realises the role our industry can and does play in making a key contribution to the environment, there’s potential for quality, reclaimed ‘Green Parts’ to become much more popular with both private and business customers. The benefits fit perfectly with a sustainable model, enabling fewer write-offs, cheaper repair costs and reduced carbon emissions.
If you look at it in terms of an EV, it’s the ideal way for it to continue its green credentials long after it is no longer roadworthy. By donating parts, it’s keeping existing EVs on the road and helping to lower the environmental impact that is associated with manufacturing brand new vehicles.
What does the future hold for automotive salvage and recycling in terms of EV processing?
In a nutshell, a lot of change! That won’t be in how much is recycled but what is recycled and how it is recycled. I believe the what will drive the how. The industry is already well regulated but further legislation is likely to safeguard the individuals working on EVs and to ensure the safety of the components that come from those vehicles to optimise reuse and recycling. There could be more collaboration to map out a vehicle’s complete life cycle. Ultimately, there’s a massive opportunity for car designers to be working with our industry to think about the end of life of a vehicle and how we can reuse, remanufacture, and recycle all the innovation that is created at the point of inception. From my perspective, I absolutely see an integrated approach where automotive manufacturers are looking for closed-loop solutions. With the correct sustainable messaging plus endorsement of reclaimed ‘Green Parts’ from the likes of the Government, I can see the increasingly environmentally-conscious public becoming much more open to the use of recycled parts in the maintenance of their vehicle.