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Rolling into Circular Economy: The Electric Way

Almost 76% of e-waste is undocumented for, which means we have no means of tracing or repurposing these valuable materials

Circular Economy provides an alternative model for the flow of materials by cutting down use of newly extracted resources and repurposing materials already in production

The circularity aspect of electric vehicles primarily concerns the battery that is used in those vehicles

The COVID-19 pandemic might be the greatest ongoing environmental science lecture one could learn from. The devastating effects the coronavirus spread has had on global economies is a cry for an upheaval of an outdated and harmful economic system.

Currently, most of the world’s countries base their economic systems on a traditional linear consumption model. This entails extraction, production, usage, and disposal of products, which we know is unsustainable. The current system is designed with the untrue assumption that there are infinite resources on planet Earth. Take, for example, the amount of global electronic waste. Almost 76% of e-waste is undocumented for, which means we have no means of tracing or repurposing these valuable materials. 

So, what are our other options?

Circular Economy (CE) is a concept currently promoted by several national governments including China, Japan, UK, France, Canada, The Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, and the EU, as well as by several businesses around the world. CE provides an alternative model for the flow of materials — one that is cyclical. CE aims to reduce extraction and use of virgin materials by repurposing materials already in the production system, instead of consistently introducing virgin materials as the current linear production system does. There are a lot of advantages to a system that is circular in nature. In repurposing the materials, they would be creating greater value. This would in turn reduce virgin material and energy output, benefiting the environment. Circular economy promises reduced material and energy costs. The environmental efficiency of the product is increased as it uses the resources over many life cycles.

How does Electric Mobility fit into The Circular Economy?

For current EV manufacturers in India, the main aim is to revolutionise the way people think about the environment and their connection to Electric Vehicles. The sustainability of a vehicle depends largely on the carbon footprint of three factors: manufacturing, use, and end-of-life. There are about 34 million electric vehicles that are used all over the world, of which about 8 million are full electric vehicles that operate through some form of battery. A study by Boston Consulting Group estimates almost half of the vehicles sold by 2030 globally will be electric vehicles with Battery Electric Vehicles expecting a growth of about 25% annually. The circularity aspect of Electric Vehicles primarily concerns the battery that is used in these vehicles. There are three possible pathways for the end-of-life of EV batteries: entering a recycling facility, re-use and re-manufacture for second life application, or entering a waste management facility. The profitability of batteries is dependent on what type of battery the material is recovered from. A case study from telematics provider Geotab suggests that metals retrieved from an LFP (lithium-iron-phosphate) battery is only half of those used in NCM (nickel-cobalt-manganese) batteries. Another issue with recycling is the fact that recycling of batteries is quite energy and asset intensive. Formalization of the recycling economy in India coupled with massive recycling volume can result in economies of scale and bring the overall fixed cost of the recycling electric batteries down. 

With re-use and remanufacturing of batteries or giving the batteries a second life. In the context of electric vehicles, if the rated capacity goes below 80%, batteries cease to be a suitable option for a vehicle. However, batteries can be used for stationary purposes like powering an apartment. The assessment of the value of the material and the function of the battery remains a question too, as we do not have an idea of the condition of the battery. Indian battery manufacturers should look at battery modularisation which also offers service and hardware options and involves maintenance data from the battery manufacturing company and also easier disassembly of the battery to replace parts in it. 

Lastly, signs of implementing circular economy strategies to the electric vehicle paradigm are visible and growing. However, as a result of the outbreak and current geo-political scenarios, India can no longer depend on international markets for materials for battery manufacturing, demonstrating a need for a sustainable supply-chain system, and for us to be truly ‘Atmanirbhar’

For more information, check out the resources below:

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMAF), 2012. Towards the Circular Economy, Report vol. 1.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMAF), 2013. Towards the Circular Economy. EMAF, 2013 (London, UK).

Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMAF), SUN, McKinsey & Co, 2015. Growth Within: A Circular Economy Vision for a Competitive Europe.

Frosch, D., Gallopoulos, N., 1989. Strategies for manufacturing. Sci. Am. 261 (3), 94–102 (September 1989).

Vijaya Lakshmi K, Chengappa C, Mullick AN, et al. Facilitating Partnerships for Environmentally Sound Management of e-Waste in India. The Secretariat of the Basel Convention (UNEP/SBC) United Nations Environment Programme Geneva, Switzerland. November- 2005

The Case for a Circular Economy in Electric Vehicle Batteries

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