End-of-life vehicles have become a globally discussed topic, as car production and disposal have increased considerably over the last decades, providing comfort and mobility to Earth’s citizens.
Along with an increase of automobile ownership comes the severe impact cars have on the environment, not only with regards to carbon dioxide emissions but also the waste generated during production, their disposal and end-of-life treatment.
In the EU, end-of-life vehicles (ELV) generate 7 to 8 million tonnes of waste every year, marking the very end of multiple thousand vehicles. Managing these vast amounts of still valuable materials is pivotal and can contribute to more sustainable and economically friendly handling of resources and promote recycling.
Following specific directives and applying state-of-the-art technology to sort the car’s materials before recycling proves to be one of the solutions seen in achieving higher recycling rates and extracting the full life value of the vehicle’s components.
From manual processes to advanced sorting technologies
Sorting technologies are in place for decades to support end-of-life vehicle recycling. Previously, steel and non-ferrous metals could be recovered with traditional non-sensor-based equipment before it was sold to Asia, where it was sorted manually. The downside was that this equipment was not able to divert remaining metals from the residue, which was traditionally landfilled.
Only in the mid-to-late 2000s, a shift in focus in the interest of recyclers took place. Since then, recyclers could go one step further by using sensor-based sorting equipment to recover metals from the residue and diverting them from landfilling. Also, it allowed for sorting mixed fractions into mono-fractions, which are more valuable and could be sold directly to local processors. There was no more need to employ traders between the selling processes. Thus, recyclers not only save time but operate more profitable too.
In recent years, existing sorting technologies have experienced further development and have improved considerably. Both speed and resolution reach higher levels, multiple technologies can be combined, and new ones are being developed to enhance the treatment of end-of-life vehicles further. Common preparation before shredding is carried out and include for instance the removal of operating liquids, airbags, batteries, optional even valuable components (such as coolers) and many other components. Shredding and wind sifting free not only valuable materials but also significant amounts of problematic materials.
Once the majority of the metals is recovered, the remaining materials are typically shredder light fractions (SLF), plastics and rubbers, of which SLF is known to be the most challenging material to sort efficiently. With the right equipment and the integration of several mechanical treatment steps, materials can be concentrated, remaining metals recovered, and wood, plastics and fine metal fractions are sorted.
Despite supportive and advanced technologies, achieving only low amounts of valuable materials is commonplace and makes ELV recycling a technical and economic challenge. An increasingly dominant difficulty lies in the correct treatment of non-metal fractions. Nowadays, recyclers are facing these challenges and are forced to develop their sorting processes further to increase product qualities and to sort even small grain sizes.
Directives shaping vehicle recycling today
Nowadays a typical sorting plant-based in a developed EU country recovers ferrous and steel fractions, aluminium, copper, brass, zinc, stainless steel, copper wires and wood. These fractions are only typical for EU countries and do not apply to less developed countries, thus depending on the location, market conditions and regulations.
Characterised as an instrument to drive circularity in the automotive sector, the ELV Directives provide an extensive framework, defining how to reuse, recycle and recover end-of-life vehicles together with their components.
Further to this, the Directive aims to achieve an increase in the number of ELVs treated in Authorised Treatment Facilities (ATFs) and to transform them into high performing facilities. Also, producers play their role in shaping the ELV process to a more sustainable one: as per the ELV directives, they should not use hazardous substances and integrate more recycled material when producing new vehicles. Banning substances from car production as well as demanding greater producer responsibility effectively, contribute to minimising the environmental impact of ELVs.
About TOMRA Sorting Recycling
TOMRA Sorting Recycling designs and manufactures sensor-based sorting technologies for the global recycling and waste management industry. Over 6,000 systems have been installed in almost 80 countries worldwide.
Responsible for developing the world’s first high capacity near-infrared (NIR) sensor for waste sorting applications, TOMRA Sorting Recycling remains an industry pioneer with a dedication to extracting high purity fractions from waste streams that maximise both yield and profits.
TOMRA Sorting Recycling is part of TOMRA Sorting Solutions which also develops sensor-based systems for sorting, peeling and process analytics for the food, mining and other industries.
TOMRA Sorting is owned by Norwegian company TOMRA Systems ASA, which is listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange. Founded in 1972, TOMRA Systems ASA has a turnover of around €876m and employs ~4,000 globally.