Patrik Ragnarsson and Benedetta Nucci from European Aluminium-based in Belgium, discuss how in the future, with more EVs coming onto the roads, more aluminium will be required for components, therefore, the recycling process to extract this metal from end-of-life EVs will need to be adapted to keep up with demand.
Aluminium is among the materials with the highest recycling rates. It is highly circular, with the additional advantage of being recyclable multiple times without losing its original properties. In Europe, recycling rates are over 90 percent in the automotive and building sectors, and 75 percent for aluminium cans. The success of our industry is based on two factors: (1) well-developed collection systems, especially for end-of-life vehicles, building scrap and used beverage cans; and (2) state-of-the-art recycling processes that result in low losses when aluminium is re-melted to recycled metal. The CO2 emission savings from recycling aluminium in Europe brings an additional benefit compared to some carbon-intensive primary aluminium imports. The aluminium recycling process requires only 5 percent of the energy needed to produce the primary metal, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions of 0.5 tonne CO2-eq/tonne recycled aluminium (gate to gate). Click on the following link to view the Circular Aluminium Action Plan.
With this in mind, it is important to think long-term, to ensure that all end-of-life aluminium products continue to be efficiently collected and recycled in Europe in the future. As mentioned earlier, the recycling rates for aluminium in end-of-life vehicles are particularly high; over 90 percent of the aluminium in cars being recycled in Europe is recovered. Most of this aluminium is recovered after a shredding and sorting procedure, resulting in an aluminium fraction of different alloys. This mix of alloys is a perfect material for new casted automotive components like engine blocks. Historically, the demand for secondary foundry alloys for engine blocks has largely exceeded the supply. See the infographic on the recycling of aluminium from ELVs.
With the fast development we see in the automotive sector today, the need for engine blocks will be reduced as more and more cars become electric. Instead, there will be a high demand for aluminium in other types of components (battery boxes, doors, hoods, crash management systems). To use recycled aluminium in these parts, the recycling process need to be adapted. 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. Recently, European Aluminium and its members founded a study, completed in December 2020 and realised by a French research centre, IRT M2P, looking into the possibility to dismantle automotive parts before shredding. If this can be done efficiently, the sorting of the alloys will be easier as there will be a smaller number of alloys in the mix.
According to the results of the study, increased dismantling of aluminium components before shredding is neither a technical nor a technological issue, since tools for dismantling and sorting already exist and are continuously improved. Instead, it is rather an economic and logistic issue.
From the economic point of view, dismantling costs are driven by labour costs and investment for dismantling. Overall, dismantling can be profitable for heavy components that require less than a few minutes of dismantling time and, of course, the profitability depends strongly on the market prices of aluminium scrap.
From the logistic point of view, at global level, there is a potential to increase the volumes of collected aluminium by 2-3 times by 2040. However, at local level, each authorised treatment facility (ATF) might continue facing issues in gathering sufficient volumes of dismantled aluminium components. Massification and networking among ATFs in the same region may be a way forward to overcome these issues.
Based on the results of our study, we can share the following recommendations that would help move towards increased dismantling of aluminium parts.
First, there is a need from dismantlers for additional information on the composition of components, and on the instructions on how to dismantle selected components. There is some potential to enrich the content of the IDIS database with this kind of information and it would help ATFs estimate the financial benefit of dismantling and sorting.
Secondly, data on future expected volumes of aluminium in specific components would also be useful to assess the feasibility and relevance of creating mutualization schemes among ATFs.
Finally, it is important to mention the relevance of increasing the amount of ELVs collected and recycled in Europe. Today most premium vehicles (with high aluminium content!) are legally or illegally exported outside Europe or illegally scraped, making it more complex to build a business case for dismantling. We hope that the upcoming revision of the End of Life of Vehicles directive will solve this aspect.