Circularity and the automotive sector


Good afternoon to this community,

My name is Caroline Samberger. I have more than 24 years of experience in the water, energy, and environmental services sectors. In the past 5 years, I have developed consultancy skills in relation to renewable energy and circular economy. In 2020, I became a Circular Economy Pioneer 2020 of the Ellen McArthur Foundation and successfully completed United Nations trainings on climate change, green economy, and sustainable development goals and the Paris agreement. I have been a circular economy advisor for diverse clients in the toy, food, logistics, or fashion sectors and published various papers and presented at numerous conferences about circular economy. I joined Stantec as a principal process engineer at the beginning of 2021, working on wastewater treatment projects and resource recovery, and net zero carbon implementation. In 2022 I joined Stantec Water Research Institute where I work more specifically on research in the areas of Circular Economy and Climate Change. Here is my view on one aspect of circular economy in the automotive industry: metals and raw materials.

By 2050, Earth’s population will grow to 9 billion. The associated metals requirements for new digital technologies and the transition to green energy will consequently increase hugely. Mining and processing of metals and raw materials generates important amounts of greenhouse gases, which the automotive sector is one of the primary users. A solution needs to be found to stop the depletion of these finite resources and circular economy might be part of the solution.

In addition to other raw materials, a typical passenger car requires nearly fifty different kinds of metal [17], of which:

  • Steel/aluminium: steel makes up most of an automobile’s body (an average of 900 kg per car) and provides strength and durability for both safety and wear and tear on the vehicle. Nonetheless, due to its lightweight and malleability, aluminium is increasingly being used for the frames of new cars, to enhance fuel efficiency and battery range of electric vehicles (EVs). Magnesium is sometimes utilized instead of steel or aluminum, though, in situations where weight reduction without strength loss is necessary.
  • Copper: copper’s conductivity is essential for the vehicle’s electrical systems, providing efficient power distribution and operation of complex electronics. It is therefore utilized in starters and alternators as well as radios, computers, navigation systems, and rearview cameras.
  • Nickel: alloys are used in a wide range of automotive components to guarantee durability and reliability. Addition of nickel to other metals produces these alloys with enhanced properties such as toughness, resistance to corrosion, and strength at elevated temperatures.
  • Cobalt: as cobalt is a necessary component of the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries, which power electric cars, this is the most common application of cobalt in the automotive sector. Apart from battery applications, cobalt finds application in various automotive components, particularly those that need to endure harsh conditions.
  • Lead: lead is present in the car’s wheel weights, to maintain tire balance while driving and also used in the batteries of gasoline-powered vehicles.
  • Platinum: both palladium and platinum are essential components in catalytic converters, located in vehicle exhaust systems. As catalysts, they help transform harmful engine gases - such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons - into less dangerous ones, such as nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.
  • Lithium: battery manufacturing also uses lithium. Lithium-ion batteries are more capacious and have a longer lifespan than batteries made of other metals.
  • Finally, because of their special magnetic and electric qualities, rare earth metals are crucial to the automotive industry, especially for electric and hybrid cars.

Electric vehicles in particular require a wider range of minerals and critical raw materials (CRMs) for their motors and batteries compared to conventional cars. EVs can contain up to 6 times more minerals than a petrol car and be on average 340 kg heavier [3]. Graphite is the anode material in a lithium-ion battery and is the single largest component by weight [3] and EV can contain more than a mile of copper wiring inside the stator to convert electric energy into mechanical energy.

The average amount of aluminium used in European cars is expected to rise from 205 kg in 2022 to 237 kg by 2026 and 256 kg per vehicle by 2030, according to a recent study commissioned by European Aluminium [15]. The analysis indicates that a notable rise in aluminium content is being driven by the automobile industry’s move towards electrification and lightweighting. This increase is being mostly attributed to electric vehicles as an average battery made in Europe in 2022 had 283 kg of aluminium, as opposed to merely 169 kg in a car powered solely by gasoline or diesel, with an average amount of aluminium in electric vehicles predicted to reach 310 kg by 2026 [15].

The primary causes of the enormous increase in aluminium consumption in EVs are its use in cooling plates, battery pack housings, e-drive housing, and ballistic battery protection. Furthermore, the infrastructure for electromobility, such as power cables and charging stations, depends heavily on aluminium.

A comparison of metals requirements for a conventional versus an electric car is presented in the Table 1.

Table 1: Comparison of metal requirements for conventional and electric cars, excluding steel:

Metal Petrol car (kg/vehicle) Electric car (kg/vehicle) Ref.
Graphite - 66.3 [3] [4]
Copper 22.3 53.2
Nickel - 39.9
Manganese 11.2 24.5
Cobalt - 13.3
Lithium - 8.9
Rare Earth elements - 0.5
Zinc 0.1 0.1
Others 0.3 0.3
Aluminium 169 283 [15]

These raw materials are crucial to Europe’s economy. They form a strong industrial base, producing a broad range of goods and applications used in everyday life and modern technologies. However, the EU industry and economy are dependent on foreign markets for access to numerous of these essential raw materials, as these are produced and supplied by third countries. The supply chains are particularly vulnerable due to the shift in global demand towards a digital and green economy or to the current geopolitical context. The EU is primarily reliant on imports from non-EU nations, despite the EU being able to produce some essential raw materials domestically [10].

For instance, nowadays, only a few countries produce the majority of the world’s lithium: Australia produces 20 % of the world’s “white gold,” while Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina produce 60 % and another 17% of the world’s lithium is produced in China. With just five nations controlling over 90 % of global production, the International Energy Agency refers to the situation as a “quasi-monopoly” [11] [12].

Numerous other essential raw materials are in extremely limited supply. South Africa supplies 71 % of the EU’s needs for platinum and an even higher share of the platinum group metals iridium, rhodium, and ruthenium. China supplies all of the EU with heavy rare earth elements, and Turkey supplies 99 % of the EU with boron. Additionally, 60 % of the cobalt refined in China comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where 63 % of the world’s cobalt used in batteries is extracted [10].

The risks associated with this metal concentration of production are in many cases exacerbated by low substitution and low recycling rates [10]. As a result, there has been a significant increase in awareness regarding the sources of materials used in electric vehicle batteries since the EU’s need for lithium batteries is expected to rise twelve times by 2030 compared to 2023 and twenty-one times by 2050, due to use in energy storage and electric vehicles [2]. Additionally, the EU’s need for other rare earth materials - which are used in electric cars and wind turbines - is expected to increase five to six times by 2030, and seven times by 2050 [2].

Reliable and unhindered access to certain raw materials is a growing concern with the EU and across the globe. To address this challenge, the European Commissions has created a list of critical raw materials (CRMs) for the EU, which is subject to a regular review and update. CRMs combine raw materials of high importance to the EU economy and of high-risk associate with their supply.

Aside the environmental and economic impacts that will be discussed in this article, the mining sector represents an issue with human rights and child labour and exploitation, according to reports by the human rights group Amnesty International and others [22]. The World Economic Forum [21] also emphasizes that raw materials such as cobalt for batteries are for instance extracted at high human toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo artisanal mines where miners as young as 7 years old suffer chronic long disease from exposure to cobalt dust which they dig by hand using basic tools. Therefore, beyond the environmental burden, the automotive sector and associated mining industry also contribute to negative human and social impacts. The rest of this article will however focus on the environmental aspects of the extraction of metals for the automotive industry.

Environmentally wise, the metals and mining sector account for around 10 % of global greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions (7 % steel, 2 % aluminium and 1 % others).

Mining’s energy use and emissions vary depending on a deposit’s ore type and grade, while smelting and refining emissions vary depending on processing methods and the region’s energy mix. The range of carbon emissions for lithium and nickel production varies depending on the kind of deposit, processing method and end-product. An estimate of CO2 emissions from mining, smelting and refining of main automotive metals is presented in Table 2.

Table 2: CO2 emissions associated with manufacturing of metals

Metal Mining, smelting and refining emissions (t CO2/t metal) Ref
Nickel 20-68 [5] [6]
Cobalt 38 [6] [7]
Aluminium 28 [5] [6]
Copper 5 [5]
Lithium 15 [8]

With 30 000 000 EVs expected in Europe by 2030 [16], the associated CO2 emissions for the metal extraction and processing required to manufacture these cars can be estimated as shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Estimated CO2 emissions from EV manufacturing in EU by 2030

Metals EU metal demand for EV vehicles production by 2030 (tons) Associated CO2 emissions (tons)
Copper 1 596 000 7 980 000
Nickel 1 197 000 53 865 000
Lithium 267 000 4 000 000
Cobalt 399 000 15 162 000
Manganese 735 000 Not available
Graphite 1 989 000 Not available
Aluminium 8 490 000 237 720 000
Total 53 000 000/year

Although not all data could be found for all metals required for the manufacturing of EV vehicles, the amount of GHG calculated with available data already represents 53 000 000 t CO2/year, which corresponds to the yearly equivalent emissions of 15 world-scale 300,000-barrel/day refineries!

But there are other sustainability problems. Obtaining these metals by conventional means takes its own environmental toll, not only on carbon emissions, but also on water and land.

For instance, most of the world’s lithium is currently sourced from hard rock mines in Australia or subterranean brine reservoirs beneath the surface of dried lake beds, mostly in Chile and Argentina. Hard rock mining causes destruction of the landscape and consumes a lot of water (170 m3/t Li extracted) and land (464 m2/t Li extracted). Therefore, in order to meet the EU 2030 need for cars, 45 390 000 m3 of water - the average lifetime drinking water supply of 1 134 000 people - would be required for lithium extraction alone!

Consequently, although electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions over time, the batteries that power them have a significant environmental impact at the beginning of their lives.

One way to counteract these environmental burdens in the automotive sector is to implement circularity, by applying 3 fundamental principles: (i) eliminate waste and pollution by design i.e design and manufacture cars for easy dismantling and materials recycling; (ii) keep products and materials in use at their highest value i.e repurposing and reusing already manufactured car parts rather than/prior to dismantling and recycling individual components; (iii) regenerate natural systems, which speaks for itself.

To meet principles i) and ii) which are probably the easiest of the 3 circularity principles to implement in the automotive sector, EU members states require to set up efforts to recover critical raw materials from waste products and mining waste:

  • To create secure and resilient supply chains;
  • To improve sustainability and circularity of critical raw materials by improving the collection of CRM rich waste and ensuring its recycling into secondary CRMs.

For example, aluminium’s exceptional recyclability could ensure that the materials used in modern cars will still be usable long after the vehicle has reached the end of its useful life, if recovery and recycling of battery components were implemented adequately.

Still, putting it into practice is not that simple. Today, 600 million batteries still end up in landfill in the UK each year. Laid end-to-end, these batteries would stretch from UK to Australia and back! [25] Batteries decay over time and dangerous chemicals can seep out and poison soil and water supplies. Li-ion batteries from EVs degrade quickly during the first five years and are generally designed for no more than a decade of use. Once they reach 70 % capacity, they’re considered at their end of life [23]. When recycled, chemical battery components are typically ground into a powder at a battery recycling facility, where the powder is either melted or dissolved in acid. Li batteries, on the other hand, are composed of numerous components that, if not disassembled carefully, comparatively to chemical batteries, pose added risk of fire or explosion. Furthermore, it is difficult to reuse the recovered products even when Li batteries are broken down in this manner [13] as they are usually bigger, heavier, considerably more intricate than their chemical counterparts, and potentially hazardous if disassembled incorrectly [13]. Electric batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction, which makes it difficult to create efficient recycling systems. And the cells are often held together with tough glues that make them difficult to take apart [19]. Because of this, recycling is more expensive than mining lithium to create new batteries. Consequently, only around 5 % of Li batteries are currently recycled globally, meaning the majority are still merely thrown away, due to the lack of large-scale, affordable methods of recycling.

For recycling to be viable it must be cost competitive with mined materials. For now, EVs are still not recovered efficiently. Abandoned and obsolete battery-powered-cars became a Chinese social media phenomenon a few years ago as a symbol of the excess waste resulting from the nation’s rapid EV boom with first generation electric cars only allowing 100 km on a charge and been ditched for newer generation cars due to technological progress in EVs and batteries [14] [18].

The automotive sector can act on climate change by working on a more circular economy and metal recovery from discarded cars. And with millions of electric cars set to hit the road, scientists are looking for better battery recycling methods, as current EV batteries are really not designed to be recycled. To ease the process, governments are urging EV and battery makers to start designing their products with recycling in mind, which is principle i) for circularity [19]. More efforts are consequently required to improve the procedures for taking apart used batteries.

With the predicted escalation of the demand for EVs, the battery and motor vehicle industry will face massive demand for recycled materials. Furthermore, if the countless millions of outdated or used Li batteries - which eventually fail after roughly ten years of use - are recycled more efficiently, all that energy spending will be offset. In order to eventually have a standardized, environmentally acceptable method of recycling Li batteries ready to meet the rapidly increasing demand, a number of organizations have already been working on implementing more efficient recycling techniques [13]. To this extent, VolksWagen announced a pilot plant for battery recycling which will work to achieve the recycling of 97 % of batter components [20].

Technological advances are also presenting opportunities for the power sector to put old batteries to new uses, in line with principle ii), bringing both economic and environmental benefits. A new second-life battery market is springing up, bringing opportunities for the energy sector and EV industry [23], as they still have other valuable applications in the green economy – such as in residential batteries and stranded power (interruptions in renewable energy supply). They can be used to light offices, power homes and buildings, cool fresh food distribution centres and as transmission support for energy arbitrage, reducing energy congestion [20] [23].

Eventually, in order to create new EV batteries, automakers and recycling businesses want to extract valuable materials from old ones. However, in order to fulfil principle ii) of circularity, it is better to reuse batteries with the same purpose as their initial design, and to give them a second chance at life on the electrical grid before dismantling and recycling its various components to manufacture new batteries. To this extent, lithium-ion batteries are being increasingly used in conjunction with wind and solar power plants to store excess energy for periods when the sun does not shine or the wind does not blow. Since these batteries are identical to those found in electric cars, automakers claim that recycling them could help solve the problem of electronic waste while also promoting the growth of renewable energy. Auto-makers such as Nissan and Renault are already using retired batteries to build large-scale energy-storage system [24].

The bottom line is that the automotive sector is heading in the right direction with circularity but more efforts are needed to better repurpose old batteries and recover raw materials. So watch this space!


  1. 01_08_2023-Critical-Raw-Materials.pdf (

  2. [Factsheet_GD_European_Critical_Raw_Materials_Act_.pdf.pdf](file:///C:/Users/csamberger/Downloads/Factsheet_GD_European_Critical_Raw_Materials_Act_.pdf.pdf)

  3. EVs vs. Gas Vehicles: What Are Cars Made Out Of? (

  4. Minerals used in electric cars compared to conventional cars – Charts – Data & Statistics - IEA

  5. Digging Net Zero pathways for mining green tech metals with IFC | The Carbon Trust;

  6. The carbon emissions of producing energy transition metals: Charted - MINING.COM

  7. The Environmental Impacts of Lithium and Cobalt Mining | Earth.Org;

  8. How much CO2 is emitted by manufacturing batteries? | MIT Climate Portal

  9. The new ‘gold rush’ for green lithium - BBC Future

  10. Critical raw materials - European Commission (

  11. Europe joins the ‘white gold’ rush for lithium and faces an energy transition challenge (

  12. SCRREEN2_factsheets_LITHIUM-update.pdf

  13. Lithium batteries’ big unanswered question - BBC Future

  14. No one wants to buy used EVs and they’re piling up in weed-infested graveyards | Fortune



  17. Assessment of strategic raw materials in the automobile sector – Ortega et al, 2020

  18. Where Unloved Electric Vehicles Go to Die: Next China - Bloomberg

  19. Millions of electric cars are coming. What happens to all the dead batteries? | Science | AAAS

  20. Electric Car Battery Life, Cost of Replacement, Recycling & Leasing | EDF (

  21. The dirty secret of electric vehicles | World Economic Forum (

  22. How problematic is mineral mining for electric cars? | Automotive industry | The Guardian

  23. New life for old EV batteries: How repurposing can help to drive green power (

  24. Old Electric-Vehicle Batteries Are Getting a Second Life - WSJ

  25. Recycling Batteries | Disposal & Collections | Recycle More (


Caroline, welcome to the platform and thank you for this contribution.

In your opinion, in which way will the competition between the “new producers” such as Tesla and BYD and their search for ever cheaper electric cars, and the old school VW, BMW, Mercedes, Stellantis, Renault etc., influence the design, and/or facilitate a certain level of standardisation?

What are the main necessities of the industry that could bring recycling to the centre of production?

1 Like

Hi Ivan

I think improvements in one or the other type of cars will impact the design of all types of cars, as if Tesla find a way to reduce the amount of metals in their design or a way to recycle them better then the conventional cars industry will be able to use this new process for their production as well. We could also imagine that current old school cars will be recycled to produce electric cars at the end of their life in 10 years time. So standardisation will come from both sectors whoever is going to create innovative way of reducing use of metals and raw materials.

As for the necessity to recycle, that will be brought by 1) the increase in price of raw materials 2) regulations which will be imposed to manufacturers to use recycled materials in their processes. 3) an adequate Carbon tax to be applied to waste producers