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Shifting Gears: Aluminium Recycling in the New Automotive Landscape

In the ever-evolving automotive landscape, aluminium has emerged as a pivotal player in driving the green revolution. A recent study explores the increasing use of aluminium in European cars. European Aluminium’s Patrik Ragnarsson, Director of Mobility & Strategic Projects and Benedetta Nucci, Senior Manager of Mobility & Life Cycle Assessment, discuss the challenges and opportunities of recycling aluminium in the new automotive era.

European Aluminium’s recent study on the aluminium content in all European passenger cars, conducted in collaboration with consulting firm Ducker Carlisle, highlights the increasing use of aluminium in European cars. From 2019 to 2022, the average aluminium content in cars surged by an impressive 18%, reaching 205 kg, equivalent to an annual growth rate of 5.6%. These figures illustrate a significant upward trend that is set to continue in the coming years. Projections indicate that by 2026, the average car will house 237 kg of aluminium, and by 2030, this figure is expected to climb even further to 256 kg. 

Shifting Gears: Aluminium Recycling in the New Automotive Landscape p two

The aluminium car components fuelling the growth

A major reason for this significant growth is the increased sales of electric cars, highlighting the vital role of the aluminium industry in driving the green revolution and aiding the EU’s ambitious goal of reducing CO2 emissions from cars by 55% by 2030. This is because electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles incorporate significantly more aluminium compared to conventional cars. According to the study, an electric car manufactured in Europe in 2022 contains an average of 283 kg of aluminium, while a gasoline or diesel-powered car only includes 169 kg. Forecasts indicate that this trend will continue, with the average aluminium content of an electric vehicle projected to increase by 9.5% from 2022 to 2026, reaching 310 kg. The surge in aluminium use in electric vehicles can be attributed to its use in key components such as electric motor housings, battery boxes, EV battery ballistic plates, and battery cooling plates.

The study also reveals that castings remain the largest product form of aluminium by far, weighing in at 123 kg per vehicle. Somewhat surprisingly, castings also represent the fastest-growing product form in terms of kilograms. By 2030, it is estimated that castings will reach 145 kg per vehicle. Although fewer cars will have internal combustion engines in cast aluminium, this decline is offset by the increasing use of casting in electric motor housings and large cast structural parts (large/mega castings).

Preparing for the Future of Car Recycling

The increasing aluminium content in cars, coupled with the shrinking market for cast aluminium engine blocks, poses a significant challenge for the recycling industry. But it is a challenge that we can prepare for, and there are solutions. 

First of all, end-of-life vehicle recycling rates for aluminium are already impressively high, with over 90 percent of the aluminium in cars that are recycled in Europe being recovered. The aluminium fraction obtained through shredding and sorting presents an excellent material for crafting new cast automotive components, such as engine blocks. Historically, the demand for secondary foundry alloys for engine blocks has largely exceeded the supply.  We now must prepare for a future where this demand is shrinking while the demand for other types of components is growing. To address this, it is crucial for the entire recycling value chain—aluminium companies, OEMs, shredders, and recyclers—to collaborate effectively and ensure that the aluminium from end-of-life vehicles finds its use also in the future.

We need to find ways to separate the alloys into alloy families, and new alloys that can tolerate more mixed aluminium scrap need to be developed. We also must work on ways to include more mixed aluminium scrap in other casting components. 

The Role of Policy: How the Revised End-of-Life Vehicle Directive Can Boost Aluminium Recycling 

On 13 July, the European Commission published its proposal for the revision of the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive into a “Regulation on circularity requirements for vehicle design and on management of end-of-life vehicles”. The proposal will be discussed in the coming months by the co-legislators to arrive at a final text. Expectations are high since a regulation that would be ambitious enough could help to solve some of the issues previously discussed.

So far, the proposed text by the European Commission gives interesting food for thought and seems to point in the right direction. 

To optimise the recycling process, efforts should be focused on improving the separation of aluminium alloys by better-sorting technologies and by selective dismantling of components with known alloy composition.

Another key aspect is the information flow from car manufacturers to recyclers. By passing on information on the material composition of the car parts, dismantling and recycling should become easier and more efficient. 

Lastly, high expectations are set on the new regulation concerning the issue of the unknown whereabouts of end-of-life vehicles and the illegal export of end-of-life vehicles as second-hand cars. Today, most premium vehicles with a high aluminium content are legally or illegally exported outside Europe or illegally scraped. 

Addressing these issues is essential in order to create a compelling business case for dismantling and ensure that valuable aluminium resources are properly recovered and recycled within a regulated framework. 

In conclusion, the increased use of aluminium in cars, particularly electric ones, presents both challenges and opportunities for the recycling industry. As the demand for cast aluminium engine blocks dwindles and the need for other components rises, the industry must adapt. Collaboration across the recycling value chain, the development of new alloys, and improved sorting technologies are key to ensuring the effective reuse of aluminium from end-of-life vehicles. The revision of the EU’s End-of-Life Vehicle Directive offers a potential boost to recycling efforts, provided it will address key issues such as the information flow from manufacturers to recyclers and the tracking of end-of-life vehicles. By tackling these challenges head-on, we can pave the way for a more transparent, efficient, and sustainable aluminium recovery and recycling ecosystem in the automotive industry. The future of auto recycling is not just about managing change but also about seizing the opportunities that this change presents.