Article topics for TREASURE

This is a list of topics on “automotive electronics waste” for three kinds of articles: discussing innovations; business opportunities; and about the dumb collective decision making that results from individual profit maximization.

We will run events around each of these topics, and turn the findings into articles cocreated with participants as a form of investigative crowd journalism.


(1) state of the art / overview of electronics recycling in general

  • It’s not different in cars compared to regular electronics.

  • An overview would be helpful, explaining the current challenges (recycling rate, lack of profitability, existing regulations to incentivize recycling).

  • Should include totals about how much electronics waste is in cars, per year, and what happens to it.

  • Could be similar to https://www.thebalancesmb.com/a-4049386

  • “As much as 7% of the world’s gold may currently be contained in e-waste, with 100 times more gold in a tonne of e-waste than in a tonne of gold ore.” (https://www.thebalancesmb.com/a-2878189)

  • “The amount of worldwide e-waste generation is expected to exceed 50 million tons by 2020, […]. This quantity includes 16.8 million metric tons of small equipment; 9.1 million metric tons of large equipment; 7.6 million metric tons of temperature exchange (freezing and cooling) equipment; 6.6 million metric tons of screens and monitors; 3.9 million metric tons of small IT,; and 0.7 million metric tons of lamps.” (https://www.thebalancesmb.com/a-2878189)

  • “PCBs and elements such as plugs with gold-plated contacts are normally sent to copper foundries that specialize in the recovery of precious and special metals. […] While oftentimes the amount of such [precious or special] metals in each individual device is minute, the overall substance stream adds up to a considerable yield. For example, a ton of cell phones contains around 250 grams of gold, whereas a ton of gold ore contains only around five grams of gold.” (https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/en/topics/waste-resources/product-stewardship-waste-management/electrical-electronic-waste)

  • There is a mechanical separation process for PCBs, as seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8i0stUAaAk and here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0oDycKgjCI . It generates metal powder and plastic powder. The issue is of course that it cannot separate between the different metals. So the components with precious metals should be removed first, called “de-populating the board”.

    However, at least some of these machines are said to “reduce the wastage of precious metals” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_s9_9gpVCg ). That may however only refer to the copper, which this machine recovers, not to gold and the like.

  • E-waste recycler Mint from New Zealand is exploring if recycling car parts (here, not specifically electronics) is profitable for their metal recovery process, because electronics themselves are becoming less valuable over time as electronics contain fewer precious metals. See: https://youtu.be/4yGPm1U7U6s?t=466

  • There is an idiocy in claiming that all e-waste recycling is hazardous and “should not be done in developing countries”. For example, there is a startup in India using manual disassembly processes to process 70% of the country’s formally collected e-waste. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JYtUKujZfY . The difficult / hazardous parts would only be CCFL lamps and PCBs (and a few other items), while the metal and plastic parts can be recycled easily. If nothing else, PCBs etc. could be shredded and exported for recycling in high-tech countries. That would be cost effective in spite of the shipping, as PCBs are probably <5% of the weight of electronics.

  • There is also no shortage of know-how and processes to fully recycle electronics. So all the pieces of the solution are already there; see https://youtu.be/IqxwnmlUUts?t=955 . It’s just about how to bring producers to implement them. Maybe a 20% recycling tax on all electronics, which then goes to recyclers? Or better, simply sorting through all waste and extracting the electronics. Only 15% of electronics are recycled per year in the U.S., so the rest must end up in landfills via normal household trash.

(2) state of the art of car and car electronics recycling

  • They are basically just crushing and shredding them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UW8jRWAATfo

  • When done better (but how often?), spare parts are extracted from cars before they are crushed. This is often done by scrapyards. The crushed cars are then sent to steel mills.

  • Here is where car electronics end up currently: shred up in a landfill.

    “These automobiles […] can still have a purpose by giving back the metal and other recyclable materials that are contained in them. The vehicles are shredded and the metal content is recovered for recycling, while in many areas, the rest is further sorted by machine for recycling of additional materials such as glass and plastics. The remainder, known and automotive shredder residue, is put into a landfill.” (https://youtu.be/X7YMfdB37Us?t=103)

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automotive_shredder_residue

  • :bulb: Very good study from 2021 about the challenges of economically extracting car electronics components for separate recycling: “Economic Viability of Extracting High Value Metals from Endof Life Vehicles”, https://epub.wupperinst.org/frontdoor/index/index/year/2021/docId/7688

  • :bulb: Another good study, from 2017: “Optimierung der Separation von Bauteilen und Materialien aus Altfahrzeugen zur Rückgewinnung kritischer Metalle (ORKAM)”, https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/publikationen/optimierung-der-separation-von-bauteilen

  • It seems very difficult to impossible to extract electronics from automotive shredder residue. So the problem with recycling electronics from cars is simply this: nobody wants to pay people to take out the electronics components first. To separate the electronics from the metals and plastics, which is always the first step in electronics recycling.

  • Basically: it’s the idiocy of an economy addicted to automation, to large-scale material handling, and which shuns manual work as “too expensive”.

  • But if scrapyards would extract the electronics because it’s profitable to them? Simplest solution.

  • There are solutions for recycling automotive shredder residue. But they seem to work simply by mechanical metal separation. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDrLMS1qzTY and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPCS5gRQSHU . That would not work to get the metal out of PCBs, because a similar recycling plant manufacturer also states: “BPS’ RecoverMax system recovers any piece of metal greater than 1 millimeter.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqJsu-JtP1g). But it does solve the issue of recycling metal and plastic housings of electronics. Which is the main component of electronics trash by weight. Even the copper from cables is fully recoverable by mechanical systems (see https://youtu.be/BPCS5gRQSHU?t=200 ).

  • “Current recycling methods using car shredders and subsequent post shredder technologies show high recycling rates for the bulk metals but are still associated with high losses of precious and strategic metals such as gold, silver, platinum, palladium and tantalum.” (“Electric vehicle recycling 2020: Key component power electronics”, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0734242X18759191?icid=int.sj-abstract.similar-articles.2 )

  • In a study using gamma activation, they found lots of gold and silver in PCB waste, but nothing in car waste: “Measurement of Gold and Other Metals in Electronic and Automotive Waste Using Gamma Activation Analysis”, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40831-016-0051-y . This means, it is too diluted in automotive shredder residue to be measurable, which will mean, it is then economically unrecoverable.

  • “The price for printed circuit boards (PCBs), where most of the critical raw materialsand precious metals in car components are located varies widely depending on the PCBquality. The lower end of the range—2.80€/kg—represents PCBs with less metal contentwhereas the upper end of the range—ca. 26.00€/kg—is valid for, e.g., PCBs from mobilephones and notebook computers. The PCB components of ELVs [end-of-life vehicles] can be considered similarto low quality PCBs rather than the high-quality PCBs found in mobile phones.” (“Economic Viability of Extracting High Value Metals from Endof Life Vehicles”, https://epub.wupperinst.org/frontdoor/index/index/year/2021/docId/7688)

  • “The European Draft directive 2000/53/CE states that by the year 2015, only 5% of the vehicle’s weight can be disposed of at landfill sites.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automotive_shredder_residue) . That would be 20-25% of the automotive shredder residue, which itself is 20-25% of car by mass (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0956053X15300581). So in a way, all car recycling is solved, including most of what would be called “electronics”, with the only exception of PCBs. And plastics can probably be recycles better, as they might be burned.

  • Articles specifically about the challenges of PCB recycling from cars, and why this is not routinely done right now:

    https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/gold-silver-content-scrap-circuit-boards/

  • Article about PCB (or here rather, EV power electronics) extraction and letting it go through usual electronics recycling, as an economic solution at least for electric vehicles: “Electric vehicle recycling 2020: Key component power electronics”, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0734242X18759191?icid=int.sj-abstract.similar-articles.2

(3) electronics recycling beyond precious metal recovery

  • “Critical raw materials (CRMs) also exist in other ELV components. For example,neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy) are used in permanent magnets, and variousrare earth elements (REE) are used in liquid crystal display (LCD) and light-emittingdiode (LED) displays as well as other components. The CRM content in different ELVcomponents typically varies from milligrams to grams and is typically low with respect tothe total mass of the component [22]. As the recoverable amounts of CRMs in the almostall ATFs with moderate throughput is economically insignificant and commercial recoveryplants remain rare, CRMs such as Nd and REEs have not been taken into account in thepresent analysis.” (Economic Viability of Extracting High Value Metals from Endof Life Vehicles, https://epub.wupperinst.org/frontdoor/index/index/year/2021/docId/7688)

(4) The 10,000 year picture: dumb profits vs. resource protection

  • An article that uses the example of automotive electronics recovery to illustrate the inability to preserve the planet and its resources when following market logic. When declining to recover electronics because it is “not profitable”, it means that the cost of recovering in the future will be even higher, as then the resources are distributed much more in the waste stream as “automotive shredder residue” that has been landfilled. A comparison with gold extraction from seawater would then be made, probably showing that even then, the waste streams are still better than seawater mining, meaning that there is no feasible alternative to keeping our precious metal together as well as possible.

  • From a resource perspective, even just extracting the electronics and storing them, potentially for some hundred years, is way better than allowing them to be shredded and landfilled. Because then future generations have a reasonable starting point to obtain some critical raw materials, at least better than when everything is trashed.

  • This should include numbers and extrapolations, with nice graphics. One of the numbers that can be used: With labour costs of 32 EUR/h in Germany and 2.30 EUR/kg for low-grade PCBs, extracting a PCB with 150 grams of mass must take 47 seconds to break even, and less to be profitable. See: “(60 / (32/2.80 * (1000/150))) * 60”. Source is one of the studies about automotive electronics recovery.

  • Nice extrapolations can be made about how much gold will be caught up in landfills in the future, starting from the current value of approx. 7%. A simple extrapolation would state something like “by 2060, all our gold will be in the trash”.

  • What capitalism (from which the notion of monetary profitability comes) does here is destroying the current resources so that future generations will not have any high-grade resources left. Some strong imagery can be used for this.

  • A discussion should follow about if capitalism can be reined in or if it has to be replaced with a different system. Long Now Foundation will have some good insights about safeguarding resources on the long run.

  • A hypothetical investor accepting a long time (even hundreds of years) between investment and return would now invest buy discarded electronics (PCBs) for prices that make their extraction profitable. And would then wait until recycling this stock becomes profitable. The problem with capitalism is not profit, but its addiction to short-term profit to the detriment of long-term profit. That is at least in part just a cultural issue: forest managers had to learn to think in terms of decades and even hundreds of years. Still, forest are profitable if evey generation hands a forest in good shape to the next one.

(5) Europe as an electronics recycling hub

  • “In 2017, new car registrations in the EU increased to 15.2 million” (https://theicct.org/publications/european-vehicle-market-statistics-20182019)

  • “Circa 5.3 million cars with an average age of 15 years were officially scrapped in2017 in the European Union” (https://epub.wupperinst.org/frontdoor/index/index/year/2021/docId/7688)

  • Taken together, Europe exports 1 - 5.3/15.2 = 65% of its used cars and only scraps 35%. So from a resource perspective, even complete recovery of electronics waste from cars would let 65% go to waste, as most destination countries are low-income countries with no recycling system for car electronics.

  • What to do about this? The simplest might be if Europe imports (!) electronics waste and recycles it properly. Just spend tax money on buying the electronics waste from other countries, and recycle it. That’s a service to the world, and solves so much more than just trying to recycle own automotive waste. It also would capture the automotive electronics waste in other countries, as people in low-wage countries will find it profitable to extract the electronics components (PCBs), and this is not an environmentally hazardous part.

  • Still another advantage of this strategy would be that Europe can solve its own resource shortage of rare earth metals this way. There will always be trash.

  • With the right prices, people in low-income countries may even find it profitable to sort through existing landfills to get electronics.

  • This is a similar concept to the Indian e-waste recycling startup.

  • Some of the recycling steps (dismantling into PCBs, metal and plastics and also perhaps PCB depopulating) can be done in source countries, in centers created by European companies and following EU standards for occupational safety.

  • A calculation should be provided how to make this worth doing. It will not be financially profitable, but strategically.

  • This strategy also allows a different view on export of used vehicles: it’s good. Because when vehicles are scrapped in a lower-wage country, more resources can be extracted from it profitable, here in collaboration with the EU-operated resource collection centers.

  • This article would strongly condemn the idiocy of demonizing the export of used electronics items and of the “unsafe” e-waste recycling in other countries. Instead, due to lower wages, these other countries are more suited for e-waste recycling than Europe. It just needs to be organized.

(6) non-standard ways to solve automotive electronics recycling

  • automotive biomimetics: a car with a central nervous system

  • pluggable standard electronics units: re-using a central electronics unit from one car in another, thereby extending its life

  • the universal car computer: a standardized device that can do all automotive computing, and that is itself made from replaceable components, similar to desktop PCs or old-school ThinkPad notebooks. It would be standardized by law t be the same between brands. When scrapping a car, one would extract this unit first, as it is very valuable due to its generic reusability in all kinds of cars.

    Companies can still do different things with it, as only the software is standardized. Even better, this could become a universal “rugged computing unit” that would find its way into tractors, farm equipment, construction machinery etc…

  • fighting obsolescence with parallel computing: when chips can work in parallel, scaling is possible without replacing the chips, means cars can use the same chips for 10-20 years; not just the same model of chips, but the very same chips, as the computing modules from old (or damaged) cars would be used in new ones

  • fall apart central electronics box: the box could be removed after loosening a single bolt, and then after pulling a handle, the box would fall apart completely into metal, plastic and PCB components. That replaces the manual separation process, usually the first step in recycling electronics. Actual PCB recycling for recovery of gold and rare earth metals etc. comes afterwards and seems to be not the part where the most value is recovered. See: https://www.thebalancesmb.com/a-2878174

    Such a process would at least make the extraction of PCBs profitable. Because otherwise, the situation is this: with labour costs of 32 EUR/h in Germany and 2.30 EUR/kg for low-grade PCBs, extracting a PCB with 150 grams of mass must take 47 seconds to break even, and less to be profitable. See: “(60 / (32/2.80 * (1000/150))) * 60”

  • extra long life: when using cars three times as long, the among of e-waste generated is three times less; and waste avoidance is always better than recycling, because recycling is never complete or perfect

(7) letting scrapyards extract car electronics

  • They already extract many other spare parts from cars. So why not electronics.

  • Make some interviews: What would they need as incentive for extracting electronics? Are some of them already used as spare parts? What about the rest (because every car electronics item will eventually belong to that group after a few reuses)? What money would they have to make to extract the useless electronics?

  • What is the proportion of “yield vs. time”? It would be enough (for now) if 95% of electronics could be recycled.

(8) how long does it take to harvest the electronics from cars?

  • This is mostly an experiment of stripping an actual car of fits electronics in DIY manner to recycle the electronics (i.e. PCBs, LEDs, etc…). Other materials such as metal and plastics are recycled already, so we really only have to deal with the PCBs because that’s the only problem left.

  • Everything would be separated and sorted it into piles. And it would be measured how long this takes.

  • And then we’d estimate if it would be possible to do so profitably. Because it’s already possible to sell electronics components to recycling facilities, such as sorted PCBs. And the only missing part is somebody extracting the PCBs from cars in a profitable manner.

  • This type of recycling would be more profitable than large-scale recycling that starts with mechanical shredding. Because by extracting the PCBs first, this process starts with much purer material. And also, some parts can be extracted and sold as used but working parts, just like scrapyards do with other car parts already.

  • This process would also be legal, as it’s just about dry disassembly, and reselling the PCBs to recyclers.

  • It would be fun if we can demonstrate that extracting PCBs from cars can be profitable. Such as, doing that on a scrapyard right before the cars are going to be pressed or shredded, as then there is no need for transport and other logistics. If it can be demonstrably profitable for small businesses, there is little meaning in doing a whole big scientific project about this “problem”.

(9) tools to make automotive electronics extraction profitable

  • From own experiments of removing PCBs and other electronic items from cars, it should become clear what tools would be needed to make this process more efficient and thus more profitable. This article would propose these tools, and possibly construct a few of them.

  • This could be presented as a detailed idea for a “car butcher’s equipment”, with things like cordless hydraulic shears of two different sizes, a firefighter’s axe, various cordless power tools etc… Many of these tools would be attached to a MOLLE load carrying vest.

  • With labour costs of 32 EUR/h in Germany and 2.30 EUR/kg for low-grade PCBs, extracting a PCB with 150 grams of mass must take 47 seconds to break even, and less to be profitable. See:

    “(60 / (32/2.80 * (1000/150))) * 60”

(10) how would we design an open source car?

  • An exercise, resulting in a rough design proposal. Manufacturers of open source cars such as RiverSimple would be asked for their input.

  • The result would probably be a set of principles to encourage reuse, resource frugality etc., as advice for current car manufacturers.

(11) the problem of e-waste from e-bicycles

(12) can we run a car on an Arduino?

  • Or, on a modern smartphone. Just to get an idea how much computational power a car needs.

  • Should include a section about what automotive electronics actually do. With categories like:

    • engine control
    • safety
    • driver assistance
    • entertainment
    • convenience (for example, power windows)
    • surveillance

    Should be combined with electronic complexity (as a proxy for raw material cost) to create an overview.

(13) DIY gold mining from car electronics

  • Could prove to be a “popular” topic, given how videos about gold mining from PCBs are popular on YouTube.

  • And more generally, DIY resource mining.

(14) the time I recycled a car

  • With pictures from the street sweeper machine, and all the parts we had for sale (just using the part pictures), and rough estimates of what we made from that. Even though disassembly took three weeks, the profit was great :slight_smile:

(15) electronics remanufacturing for cars

  • This is in a way like phone remanufacturing, just for cars. And we have some experience with phone remanufacturing …

  • An article could explore, among other things, what openings there are due to the new European “right to repair” legislation.

(16) relative electronics content of electric cars, trucks and electric bicycles

  • May result in the argument that having trucks is ok as the proportion of electronics in them is much smaller.

(17) raw material value in automotive electronics

  • Should include an extrapolation into the future, when cars will contain much more electronics.

  • “Apple revealed that it recovered 2,204 pounds of gold —worth $40 million—from recycled iPhones, Macs, and iPads in 2015.” (https://www.thebalancesmb.com/a-4049386)

(18) re-using electronics from cars for other purposes

  • And how manufacturers could support this re-use.

  • For example, using windscreen wiper motor etc…

(19) the joy of a car with zero electronics

  • Stories from oldtimer enthusiasts, from some car forum.

  • Should explain some of the ingenious device designs that replaced electronic components with electromechanical ones.

(20) learning circular economy from 1910s electric cars

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ping @trythis - thoughts? Which of these do you find most interesting/relevant?

also I think @patrick_andrews might have some thoughts here from experiences with Riversimple (I think it was called?)?

@matthias - my preferences are:

(13) DIY gold mining from car electronics
(19) the joy of a car with zero electronics
Combine (14) and (10) into something like: How to make your own car
(4) The 10,000 year picture: dumb profits vs. resource protection
(6) non-standard ways to solve automotive electronics recycling

Possible? If so which ones/ how many could you make by the 14/7 ?

In five days? I could make one … one of the easier ones. Means one of these from your shortlist:

  • (19) the joy of a car with zero electronics
  • (13) DIY gold mining from car electronics (if not going too deep into the matter)
  • (6) non-standard ways to solve automotive electronics recycling (if framing this as a collection of novel ideas)
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nr 6 :slight_smile:

Here you go, article no 6 is ready :slight_smile: It’s a bit drafty still, missing pictures and other niceties, but good to show around and collect initial feedback.

Please let me know some general feedback before I work the article into its finished form including pictures and a more engaging (and if desired, funny) presentation.

Also for the next articles, please let me know which ones you want once you know. Ideally two weeks or more before intended delivery, as that makes it certain that I can catch a “creative window”. (That would really help me writing them.)

hey this looks super, can you repost as a topic for us to discuss openly and invite others too?

Sure, done. Original link in the post above also adapted.

Hey Matt, looping back on this.

Am doing a bit of planning for outreach for Treasure. What would a realistic schedule be for you to produce the remaining articles - one a month?

One per month is well doable. (Would then probably do it as three in a week and then have three months without having to care for them.)

sure that’s fine by me.

Ok, deal. Next article this month then.

1 Like

This recent article in Science illustrates the woeful state of EV battery recycling with some ideas for how it can be made better for recycling. But even then, it looks like there is going to be a gigantic amount of unrecycled waste from electric cars.

https://www.science.org/content/article/millions-electric-cars-are-coming-what-happens-all-dead-batteries?utm_campaign=ScienceNow&utm_source=Social&utm_medium=Facebook&

2 Likes