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Separate recycling of electronics embedded in cars: Opportunity or Necessity?

As cars become more electronic, there is a growing movement to recycle the embedded electronics separately. This is because these electronics contain valuable metals that can be reused. Currently, these electronics are not recycled separately, which is inefficient and wasteful. Charles Marmy, Environmental Scientist and Engineer at Empa, a Swiss research institution for application-oriented materials science and technology, is studying this issue and has found that it is both environmentally and economically beneficial to recycle embedded electronics separately. His research is helping to change policies in Switzerland and the EU so that they can move towards a more sustainable automotive future.


Separate recycling of electronics embedded in cars: Opportunity or Necessity? p
Charles Marmy

Did you drive a car today? If yes, you might have connected your smartphone to the infotainment system. Perhaps you used the integrated navigation module to help you reach your destination. If the day was beautiful, you could have opened the windows to enjoy the nice summer air simply by pressing a button or two. While going through a tunnel on your itinerary, it’s probable that the headlights would have turned on automatically and oriented themselves in the direction of your trajectory. You enjoyed the safety of knowing that you would keep control of the vehicle even if you had to brake violently and listened to the smooth purr of an engine that works smoothly and efficiently, without hiccups of any sort – except if you were on the way to the garage of course.

Behind all those small luxuries, as well as many other functions in a car, visible or not, vital or superfluous, lie embedded electronic devices. A modern car contains between 30 and 50 kg of them. Some of them are the sensors of the cars; they “feel” what’s happening inside and around the vehicles, such as the temperature, pressure, luminosity, speed, etc. Others are small computers that treat sensor-data and possibly send back commands to actuators, another type of device that uses small electric motors to make parts of the car move. The cables connecting those devices together, allowing them to share energy and information, are also electronic devices in themselves. 

Those devices are similar to “regular” electronics, such as computers, printers or TVs. Just like them, they contain many rare or precious metals, including gold, neodymium, or cobalt, in their printed circuit boards, magnets, connectors and electric motors. Those metals are crucial for advanced technologies that are at the core of our energy transition, such as electronics, solar panels, windmills, batteries and so on. 

But unlike consumer electronics, embedded electronics are not recycled in specialized facilities. Once the car has reached the end of its service life, they get treated with the whole car instead (some components get removed to be sold as used spare parts, but those stay in the car as well once it reaches its end-of-life). A typical car-recycling facility focuses on recovering base metals such as iron, copper or aluminium and does so very well. However, rare and precious metals that are mainly found in electronic devices are lost. Due to their limited availability and strategic importance, there are strong reasons to improve their efficient recycling.

To address this issue, one potential solution is to remove embedded electronics from old vehicles and recycle them in specialized E-waste recycling facilities. Those installations are optimized to recover scarce and precious metals, as well as copper, plastics, and other materials, with lower losses. However, removing those components represents a significant amount of work, which needs to be paid. The question that begs to be answered is: is all that worth it?

As my Empa colleagues and myself found out in a recent study for the Swiss government, yes, it is. We built a model that compares the environmental benefits and economic costs of removing and recycling separately embedded devices from cars. We estimate the total cost of total removal and separate recycling to be about 0.5% of the average value of a new car. For most devices, doing so generates a net environmental benefit by generating secondary raw materials that substitute their primary extraction or production, and by reducing the amount of waste that needs to be incinerated. The efficiency of such a measure compared to its cost is equivalent to long-standing recycling systems such as aluminum or cardboard, depending on the type of device considered. We used the same approach again in a similar study for the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, in collaboration with the Chalmers University in Sweden and Oeko-Institut in Germany. 

Based on those results, both Switzerland and the European Union are embracing this approach in their respective policies on electronics or end-of-life vehicle recycling, respectively. In both cases, the process is still ongoing: the recently revised Swiss ordinance on E-Waste Recycling requires a list of devices for which removal and recycling are environmentally sound and economically supportable to be defined by the government. This list is not final yet. On the European Side, the Commission recently published a proposal for a new ELV Directive that includes a list of devices to be removed and recycled separately. 

In any case, the implementation of such measures will make us more economically resilient by keeping those strategic materials in the loop, environmentally sustainable by reducing their primary extraction, and all that for a reasonable price.