The Role of Vehicle Recycling in Carbon Neutral Energy Development

Hint: Vehicle recycling is essential for carbon neutral energy development at a global scale.

According to Tesla’s Master Plan Part 3 there appears to be no insurmountable material or technological constraints to achieving a sustainable energy economy; part of this plan calls for the widespread adoption of EVs. So is it true? Is vehicle recycling essential to carbon neutral energy development?

Other research indicates there are only enough existing prospective reserves to electrify the global transportation sector using current technology if a high amount of battery recycling occurs. This is largely because of material shortages of the metals needed for battery materials. While Tesla’s most recent Master Plan does not put much emphasis on battery recycling specifically, it does predict that recycling will become essential in the 2040s, when primary material can no longer be used. While Tesla’s latest report does not outright use the hot-button phrase ‘circular economy’, the concept of re-using battery materials within the same company they originated from is exactly that.

What is a circular economy?

A circular economy describes an economic system in which the reuse of materials makes economic sense. Perhaps this explains why Tesla is looking towards the 2040s. For the most part, it is currently more profitable to extract new materials rather than reprocess consumer-waste. It will not be until there is a severe shortage of materials that the latter makes sense to companies driven by profit. The decision by Tesla to not use this buzzword is particularly interesting when we consider that other countries’ governments, including Sweden, are making bold commitments to build a circular economy. 

Recycling, a key component in building a circular economy, secures a local supply of materials and decreases new material demand, both of which help to keep costs down and of course, are better for the environment. These savings trickle down to consumers, making things like EVs accessible more widely. 

This is particularly important for Tesla where the company’s battery supply chain and more specifically the refining/chemical processing of materials, is a large part of their overall supply chain emissions (27 percent of their scope 3 emissions). According to Tesla’s 2022 Impact Report, car batteries are currently recycled to the best of their ability. Still, actual recovery and re-use of the metal within their batteries is a goal for 2024.

In multiple sectors, recycling technologies should be developed to overcome the critical-material shortages.

Steel has a recycling rate between 80-90 percent. And yet, the steel supply is fundamentally limited by the number of steel products reaching their EOL point and being recycled. While steel recycling is limited by the speed at which products come to the end of their useful lives, it is moreso a matter of material being put back onto a path of re-use. This is likely to become a bigger problem as the demand for passenger transport is expected to rise substantially (3X) by 2050. 

While Tesla seems to see recycling as something to be developed for the future, others offer it as a solution in the interim. Some scientists are calling for the implementation of material efficiency (ME) strategies as a more instantaneous measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term; among these material efficiency strategies are recycling and re-manufacturing. While use-phase emissions are not reduced via ME strategies, associated vehicle supply-chain emissions can be reduced about 6-20 percent (or 0.2–1.3 t CO2e person) through recycling and re-manufacturing (Wolfram 2020).

SHiFT’s support of ARTI: a training institute with the power to improve vehicle recycling processes

Given scientists’ calls for improved processes to deal with end-use materials, it is that much more significant that SHiFT is supporting the advancement of this industry via its support for ARTI.

The Automotive Recycling Training Institute trains industry members on the best, most up-to-date environmental practices of Automotive Recycling. Ultimately vehicle recycling is part of a larger conversation about creating a circular economy; Investment in this industry works two-fold, reducing current emissions and supporting a larger transition to circular consumption and carbon neutral energy development at a global scale.