May 15, 2021
Original article published in The Economist
Car sales have, generally speaking, plunged during the coronavirus epidemic. But there has been one bright spot. Electric vehicles (evs) continue to grow in popularity. According to ihs Markit, a research firm, almost 2.5m battery-electric and plug-in-hybrid cars were sold around the world in 2020—and the company expects that number to grow by 70% this year. Bloombergnef, another researcher, reckons that by 2030 some 8% of the 1.4bn cars on the road will be electric, rising to more than 30% by 2040. It is not, moreover, just a matter of cars. There will also be electric lorries, buses, motorbikes, bicycles, scooters, ships and maybe even aircraft. And, when all of these machines come to the ends of their useful lives, they will need to be recycled.
This coming avalanche of e-waste will be hard to deal with. When a petrol or diesel car is dismantled and crushed, as much as 95% of it is likely to be used again. Ways to do that are well-developed, straightforward and helped by the fact that, on average, almost 70% of such a vehicle consists of readily recyclable ferrous metals. evs, by contrast, contain a far greater variety of materials (see chart). Separating and sorting these is tricky, especially as many of them are locked up inside complex electrical components.