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How will electric vehicles impact the automotive recycling sector?

The first national effort to understand end-of-life electric vehicles has identified a series of existing gaps.

In late 2022, the Automotive Recyclers of Canada (ARC) published a roadmap for the impact of electric vehicles (EVs) on the auto recycling industry in Canada. The project had a small budget from Natural Resources Canada, and was the first national effort to begin to understand EVs at end-of-life. The 27 page document, plus the 62 page appendices, identified a series of gaps that exist – economics, safety, and information.

EV Industry Roadmap

Like virtually everything in the rapidly emerging EV field, the report was dated as soon as we pressed send, but it continues to be a roadmap that auto recyclers, regulators, researchers – and every stakeholder in the Circular Economy of EVs uses as the most comprehensive review of what EVs will do to the auto recycling sector.

The interpretation of the report needed to start with a broad segmentation of “auto recycling.” Basically there are two types of businesses involved in processing ELVs – those that focus on parts recovery with materials recovery as secondary; and those that focus on materials recovery almost exclusively. Let’s call them Dismantlers and Scrap Processors respectively. To make things a bit messier, there are overlaps between those types of business, along with customer-buyer relationships, and that can change depending on the age of the vehicle in question. A Dismantler will surgically dismantle a late-model total loss vehicle from an insurance company for its parts, while they may just remove the basic battery, tires, catalytic converter on an old junker.

The reason this segmentation is important for EVs is that the Dismantler sector generally has the time and resources to remove items from a vehicle – and when it comes to the battery in an EV – that part definitely needs to be removed, and done very carefully.

Let’s look at each of the gaps identified in the EV Roadmap in more detail.

Economic Gaps
The drivetrain from an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle is the number one selling part for virtual all auto recyclers. An EV’s drivetrain is significantly different than an ICE vehicle – it is smaller, lighter with dramatically fewer moving parts. And the fewer moving parts means fewer breakdowns – good for the consumer, but not good for the auto recycler who needs to sell parts to begin to cover the cost of acquiring, moving and processing the vehicle. At this point, we are not getting a lot of part requests for engines and transmissions for EVs. The rest of the vehicle, outside of the battery, is a pretty typical vehicle with plenty of body panel, mirrors, lights, wheels to re-use.

You will notice that when others talk about the end-of-life handling of EVs, they immediately jump to the battery. But for an auto recycler, an EV has an entire vehicle wrapped around the battery, and we never talk in terms of the battery separated from the vehicle. And an end-of-life vehicle does not mean the battery is end-of-life. They are building batteries that will definitely outlive the vehicle.

The EV battery, which is the really new thing in an EV is still a giant unknown as to whether it has positive or negative value. That is changing, and changing quickly as battery recyclers get more operational and are looking for product to recycle. The battery re-use market (ie going back in to a vehicle) shows promise, but we are too early in the lifecycle of EVs to really know how that will play out. The battery re-purposing (ie, use in situations other than motive power and therefore usually secondary energy storage) marketplace is evolving with new players entering every week. A White Paper by the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) and Rejoule Energy – Why Battery Testing is Critical for the Transition to Electric Vehicles, is a significant resource that will help auto recyclers understand the state of health of an EV battery, which will help to determine the best path for its management.

ARA, along with Argonne Labs in the USA, have produced another great resource – a Battery Material Use Hierarchy.

This hierarchy graphically shows the value proposition of EV batteries and how their value retention and recovery should be approached.

EV’s have a different material profile than ICE vehicles. They are generally heavier, but much of that weight delta is the battery itself. But that battery requires some substantial structure to the vehicle to keep the battery safe while in operation. Lightweighting is a constant pressure for the auto makers to meet fuel economy standards or in the case of EVs – to minimize the weight the battery is pushing down the road to increase the vehicle’s range. Making the vehicle lighter but still safe often times uses more nonferrous materials (ie, aluminum) which is very beneficial with yields coming from the shredder.

EVs do contain some very valuable rare earth magnets, and a Canadian company – Cyclic Materials is leading the effort to cover these critical and precious metals. This is more value to recover if and when we can collectively figure out where they are and how to safely remove.

An interesting side note on the metals from electrified vehicles is the use of Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) – they are abundant in hybrid vehicles, but virtually absent from a full electric vehicle as there are no tailpipe emissions for the catalytic converter to clean up.

Keeping Safe
On the safety side of EVs there are two key issues: the imminent safety of the employee de-energizing and removing the battery from the EV; and the fire risk associated with lithium-ion batteries (LIBs).

For employee safety, there is a general good understanding of the risk of working with LIBs. They have enough energy in them to kill. In a study we undertook with our Members, one-third of the membership have chosen not to buy and process EVs, with the main reason the uncertainty of the safety of their employees. That is changing and improving as better information gets out, but there is still a lot of work. Training to minimize the risks is coming online, but there is little consistency in the training, and not great availability to working dismantlers and recyclers.

The risk of fires involving EVs is real. But per mile driven, ICE vehicles have a much, much higher probability of a fire. The problem that does exist though is that an EV vehicle, once on fire, is generally catastrophic in nature. Fire departments, first responders, even tow companies are all grappling with how to deal with these significant events.

Lithium-ion battery fires at waste facilities and shredders are a significant concern. But as of yet, we are not aware of any fires related to LIBs from EVs at an auto recycler, dismantler, shredder or waste facility. The LIB fires that do occur are thought to derive from small rechargeable batteries or perhaps small motive batteries from scooters and e-bikes. But not from EVs.

In our discussions with auto shredders, they are just beginning to update their supply policies to require the removal of all batteries from processed hulks before they arrive on site. That is an easy win to ensure the supply chain is involved and proactive. Monitoring and enforcement is required though. No one wants an EV LIB to go through a shredder.

Information Needs
The economic and safety issues discussed above all have a common problem for proper end-of-life management of EVs – information.

Knowing the chemistry of a battery is important. Knowing the state of health of a battery is important – kilometers driven can be a weak indicator of the real health of a battery. Knowing where and how to de-energize an EV is critical. Knowing how to store, ship and document the battery is important but virtually unknown in our sector.

There are a lot of unknowns with EVs and information sharing, collaboration, and recognition that the Circular Economy for EVs works when all segments are involved and engaged.

One great tool that has emerged is EV Rescue – a free app for your mobile phone that provides current information directly relevant to first responders and auto dismantlers.


Electric vehicles are here to stay. There are enough on the road now that they will be significant at end-of-life. And all the growth curves are bending upwards with some of them still in exponential growth. So there will be many more EVs in our futures. But we are not at scale yet – both in terms of the number of EVs reaching end-of-life, but also with the information, systems, processing capacity, market development for parts and materials – the basic economics of ELV processing that makes the automobile one of the most circular products ever.

There are people outside the industry seeking to place EVs batteries under an Extended Producer Responsibility framework – the auto manufacturers design and build these things, they should be responsible for them at end-of-life. ARC opposes this mindset. EPR can be an effective policy tool when applied to waste. But EV batteries are not waste. And intervening in a rapidly developing marketplace is not only disruptive but it will inhibit innovation and the commercial development of functioning markets. That’s what a successful Circular Economy in EVs and their batteries will look like.

We are all on the road to EV’s becoming commonplace. There have been and there will continue to be many bumps along the road. But the challenges and opportunities that exist at end-of-life of a vehicle are not insurmountable and there have been plenty of advancements along the way. Optimism mixed with realism permeates the auto recycling world.

Article originally appeared in Recycling Product News, March 2024