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Biden’s plan to reduce emissions creates new environmental concerns for automakers

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The Biden administration’s push toward greener automobiles, rolled out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month, works to reduce carbon emissions but ignores other potential environmental implications, such as a rise in e-waste likely resulting from the plan. 

While the plan doesn’t require automakers to use electric vehicles (EVs) to meet the emission mandates, a USA Today opinion piece points out that EVs are the most plausible way for automakers to meet the timeline, which starts with model year 2027. 

Mining and processing crucial elements needed to make EV batteries impact the environment in another way, the USA Today piece says. 

“There’s a huge amount of environmental impact of mining the lithium and copper and all the materials that go into it,” James Meigs, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the former editor of Popular Mechanics, says in the USA Today piece. “So by the time that battery gets to your car, it’s already responsible for a huge amount of carbon emissions.” 

In a 2023 article, Slash Gear questions if EVs are the best environmentally friendly option, partly because of EV e-waste. 

“Yes, it’s true that electric vehicles don’t burn gas and don’t emit carbon dioxide while in use,” the article says. “Over the lifespan of such a vehicle, though, from creation to the end of its life, e-waste becomes a considerable concern.”

The article notes the world doesn’t have an endless supply of crucial elements found in EV batteries such as lithium, nickel, and cobalt. 

“The widening of mining efforts as these resources deplete, accordingly, increases the cost to the environment,” the Slash Gear article says. “The metals that are components in these batteries, further, means that they should not simply be tossed away. The EPA defines them as critical minerals, ‘raw materials that are economically and strategically important to the U.S., have a high risk of their supply being disrupted and for which there are no easy substitutes.’

Multiple media sources point out there is a solution as the elements are highly recyclable if disposed of in the right way. Yet, the improper disposal of e-waste has been a global problem governments have been wrestling with for some time.

A report created by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, International Telecommunications Union, and Fondation Carmignac recently found that 62 tonnes of e-waste was produced globally in 2022, with only 22% recycled correctly. 

Reuters reported last year, that up to 30% of Europe’s internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles disappear overseas to new owners in developing countries, or for scrap. This problem extends to EVs.

OEMs are “all over the board” on storage from some having a process in place through their dealer networks to wanting them recycled, and some not providing any guidance, I-CAR Repairability Technical Support and OEM Technical Relations Manager Scott VanHulle previously said. 

For example, Reuters says Nissan has turned to leasing EVs in Japan to maintain control of its batteries and BMW hopes something can be done to keep batteries from being sold abroad; perhaps with the increase in the value of battery materials making recycling a more attractive option.

EV automaker Rivian said during the 2021 SEMA Show that they want damaged high-voltage components and battery packs from total loss vehicles to be given back to them so they can be properly recycled. Lucid, at that time, said they planned to keep track of battery packs that are put back into its fleet.

Late last year, Toyota expanded its battery recycling network through a new collaboration with Cirba Solutions, a battery recycling materials and management company. The agreement optimizes its logistics network for end-of-life electrified vehicle battery collection, including those from hybrid (HEV), plug-in hybrid (PHEV), and battery electric vehicles (BEV).

“Cirba Solutions’ large and well-established transportation and recycling network ensures Toyota has nationwide battery collection and recycling to reduce both our costs as well as our operational carbon footprint,” Christopher Yang, Toyota Motor North America business development group vice president previously said. “This moves us closer to our ultimate goal of creating a sustainable, closed-loop ecosystem for our automotive batteries.”

The European Council and Parliament adopted a New Batteries regulation in 2023 to create a circular economy for EV batteries.

“EU rules on batteries aim to make batteries sustainable throughout their entire life cycle — from the sourcing of materials to their collection, recycling, and repurposing. In the current energy context, the new rules promote the development of a competitive sustainable battery industry, which will support Europe’s clean energy transition and independence from fuel imports,” the EU website says

While the U.S. has yet to have a similar law, automakers and suppliers in the industry continue to attempt to address the concern. 

A 2022 New York Times article outlines the challenges for startup battery recycling companies.

“It could take many years for recycling to become a thriving industry in the United States,” the article says. “Relatively few electric vehicles are on the road, and most are new. Smartphones, laptops, and other electronics also contain lithium-ion batteries, but they are difficult to collect and there are not enough to meet the growing needs of the auto industry.”

The article highlights multiple companies working to provide a recycling service but focuses in-depth on Redwood, started by J.B. Straubel, a former Tesla executive.

Redwood produces battery material from recovered or mined metals and has a recycling partnership with Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, according to the article. It also says the company recycles scrap from a battery plant run by Panasonic and Tesla.

However, because EV batteries can last for up to 20 years, Redwood doesn’t have enough material to fully create its material out of recycled metals. It is still forced to depend on mined resources.

A recent article published by also speaks to some of the concerns automakers face in the age of EVs.

“Automakers face obstacles in implementing circular economy principles, such as the high costs associated with redesigning products and processes,” the article says. “There are also controversies surrounding the environmental impact of electric vehicle battery disposal, as the recycling and disposal of these batteries require specialized infrastructure and technologies. Furthermore, differing viewpoints exist on the feasibility and effectiveness of circular practices in the automotive industry, with some stakeholders questioning their economic viability and scalability.”


Photo courtesy of PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock

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