Virgin polypropylene (PP) resin (left) comes in uniform pellets. Grinding plastic products down for recycling creates irregular shaped and sized pieces (right). Virgin pellets are combined with the regrind to be molded into new products. (Source: Schaefer Systems International)
The automotive industry has long been head of the curve on the afterlife of its products. Even after a vehicle has been passed from owner to owner, the system of handling scrap cars is well developed. That is until electrical vehicles. The value of a used EV -- even a hybrid -- may be compromised by the cost of a replacement battery. Car buyers could long depend on the resale value of their existing car as they evaluated the worth of a vehicle. This is not clear with EVs and hybrids. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over coming years.
Good point, Rob. With a standard ICE car, you know what to do when it gets old. You can replace the engine and transmission with a new or rebuilt one. You can put in a new gas tank. Upgrade the radio. Rework the suspension. You can add decades of life to a standard car. But what do you do with an old hybrid? We don't know, yet. But it ain't that easy or straightforward, I bet.
I agree, Warren, the used hybrid or EV is a mystery. And it seems late in the game for it to still be a mystery. The resale value of your car should not be such a mystery at the moment you buy the vehicle. Otherwise, how can you asses the value?
Good point, Rob. For some reason, the auto industry has yet to give much thought to the recyclability of lithium-ion EV batteries. The best guess I've heard is that we know it's about 80% recyclable. Beyond that, there's not much agreement on what to do with it.
I'm not sure that the automotive industry itself was ahead of the curve. Excluding the used car market which for the purposes of design for disassembly can be viewed as an extension of the primary life of the product (same product use, different owner), it was parties outside of the Big Three that saw the opportunity and value of the car corpses. That vision took the form of reselling the used components, sub-assemblies or scrap metal and made that re-use/recycle stream a reality. Having worked in product engineering for GM for 5 years, I know that product "afterlife" was rarely given any consideration even when it was cost-neutral to do so.
The auto industry has gotten better in recent years, but that improvement hasn't really originated within the automotive industry - it has mostly been driven by European governmental policy which emphasizes corporate responsibility for product afterlife.
If I had to pick one point in time that seemed to have catalyzed the current trend of design for disassembly, I'd probably pick the investigative reports and documentation of the dumping of PCs and electronic peripherals in Third World countries and the major environmental poisoning resulting from it. For some reason, those stories had legs in both the media and around the "water coolers".
I think Clinton has a good point about where the focus on end-of-life has come from--it's the darn government, in this case European governments. The concept of corporate responsibility for product afterlife is pretty strong in Europe and Japan, but barely existent in the US. I don't know about everyone else, but I first heard of it here with printers, specifically HP's recycling program.
The HP program was one of the first that I heard about also. I believe it was implemented after the rash of news reports on the toxic acres of dumped PC and accessory parts in Third World countries. If I remember correctly, it was an unusually quick response for a large corporation to a topical issue.
Interestingly, I just read a N.Y. Times article about the problem they are having with recycling the old cathode ray tubes. The recycling process for the leaded glass and infrastructure to implement it had been successfully running for years.
However, with the switch from analog to digital broadcasting, and the related switch from CRTs to flat screens, the supply of disposed CRTs increased exponentially at the same time the demand disappeared. Flat screens don't use leaded glass and there are not enough other products that do to offset the huge supply of waste.
So as the article points out, the disposed CRTs are not being recycled, but stored, and they are creating their own little toxic waste sites.
Clinton, thanks for that link. This basic problem must have occurred before--what happens to an old material when a new material replaces it? In the old, pre-recyling days, the old materials probably got landfilled. Because recycling gives more visibility to such problems, we're all made more aware of them. This is not to diminish the severity of the problem, but I think it does give some perspective. At least now we know the problem exists, instead of it being hidden under heaps of garbage, and can hopefully find ways of dealing with it.
Good point...on the cost of ownership side, a friend is in auto financing and leasing. She said they are preparing for a flood of 1st generation hybrids that will have low residual values. The earliest ones are nearing end of life on batteries. The replacement cost will exceed the value of the car, which will boil down to the value when they are parted-out.
This case study bears further analysis. Do the touted eco-benefits of the hybrid and electrical vehicles realized while they are in use outweigh the almost certain obsolescence of the entire vehicle because of the cost of replacement batteries?
Depending on overall quality of the design, engineering and manufacturing, a regular car's expected lifetime is somewhat open-ended as Warren pointed out. If the cost of the replacement batteries for a hybrid/electric vehicle eclipse the market value of the rest of the car, it seems like the expected lifetime of these cars is tied directly to the battery and is close-ended.
If third party aftermarket parties don't figure out a cost-effective solution to this puzzle, at least DfD will make parting out the car easier...
What will be the very most interesting is to see how the aftermarket plays out in 5the EV battery area. I can easily see a possiblity that the battery packs will have an electronic serial number and manufacturers code and that the vehicle could be easily set up to not run without an OEM battery. That would assure a captive market for replacement battery packs, no matter how much they cost. So it would be quite prudent for a law preventing that sort of thing to be put in place prior to the problem becoming a big issue. Already we have computers and cell phones that won't function with other than OEM batteries, which happen to cost a lot more. How vwery convenient.
So purchasing a used EV will be an interesting excersize, possibly in frustration. That is my guess.
Very informative post Clinton. I worked several years in the appliance industry and the first indication DfD was necessary was when dealing with countries in the EU. Our products were not "friendly" in the least when considering disassembly and possible reuse of components. That industry long ago stopped using materials, primarily metals, that were hazardous health-wise but disassembly was not a primary concern. They are getting better now but with a long way to go. The primary concern was damage done during shipment AND the use of specialty tools when components were NOT to be taken apart or to encourage a home owner to call a trained individual when needing repairs. Your eight (8) comments are very timely. Many thanks.
Bobj - thanks for your feedback and I'm glad you found the information useful.
And thank you for bringing up another consideration for DfD.
While I included a few examples of poor decisions that impact disassembly including using a mix of fastener standards (ask any auto mechanic - GM is famous for using both metric and English fasteners on the same component), I neglected to mention the exceptions. DfD needs to be balanced with planned restricted access, and may have to be sacrificed in cases like the one you pointed out, when you don't want untrained hands accessing componentry.
Needing specialized tools can be frustrating when trying to disassemble a product, but preventing those people from inadvertently touching a charged capacitor or destroying an expensive component during the product's useful lifecycle sometimes outweighs other priorities.
As an industry, we now need to up our game and provide contractors with easier ways to properly identify and report counterfeit products and build collaboration between manufacturers, design engineers, industry organizations, and government.
The shift to aluminum is gaining momentum and the demand from automakers for aluminum is soaring, "expecting to reach one billion pounds this year, up from 200 million in 2012, and to grow by more than 30% annually through 2020."
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