Around 7.6 million petrol and diesel cars will likely be sent to the scrap heap this decade as Australia accelerates its shift to electric vehicles, but there are no national laws for disposing of end-of-life vehicles, just as there are no laws on vehicle greenhouse emissions.
Millions of cars will be retired and replaced by electric vehicles under scenarios for electric vehicle uptake modelled by ClimateWorks. As electric vehicles become mainstream, their batteries pose potential new waste issues as well as opportunities for reuse.
The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce is calling for a national scheme where every car is tracked from ‘cradle to grave’.
Geoff Gwilym, VACC chief executive officer told The Driven that the issue of disposing of old cars exists already. Each year in Australia around one million new vehicles are purchased and 600,000 retired.
Australia is the only developed country without a national policy for the proper disposal of end of life vehicles. As the process for recycling and recovery of motor vehicles is costly, the lack of national regulation means legitimate recyclers can be competing with illegal operators.
Most of the metals like aluminium, steel and some alloys used in old cars can be recycled. Plastic parts are often shredded and sent to landfill. Meanwhile, some vehicle waste can be harmful or hazardous, such as oil, petrol, coolant and mercury.
Gwilym said some states like Victoria have moved to regulate vehicle waste, but the lack of a national approach means industry operators who follow the rules find themselves competing with illegal operators on the black market.
“You don’t know if somebody is digging a hole in a paddock somewhere, and bulldozing a whole lot of waste into that hole”, Gwilym said.
Such unregulated waste practices pose a risk to health and safety and the environment.
Across Europe, a directive on end-of-life vehicles requires a minimum 85 per cent of vehicle waste be recycled or recovered. The directive also requires car designers to take into account the dismantling, reuse, recovery and recycling of components and materials and to avoid the use of hazardous materials.
Statistics show of the 6.1 million cars and light vehicles scrapped annually in the Europe Union, around 87 per cent of vehicle waste was reused and recycled. Eleven European countries achieved recycling and reuse levels higher than 90 per cent.
The European Commission is currently consulting on proposed improvements to the directive which could include mandatory recycled content for plastic components such as bumpers, seat belts and steering wheels.
As electric vehicles become mainstream, Gwilym said Australian governments will need new systems and processes in place to ensure electric car batteries don’t end up in landfill and to manage damaged batteries, such as when cars are involved in an accident.
He said there are a couple of companies already looking at reusing electric car batteries for other purposes like solar energy storage for households or industrial facilities.
In its submission to the Future Fuels Strategy, ClimateWorks called for national supply chain guidelines for electric vehicles and battery components to ensure sustainable, ethical supply chains underpin the rollout of new technologies.
Following reuse, electric vehicle batteries can then be recycled. Electric vehicle batteries typically contain components and rare metals like steel, copper, cobalt and nickel that have significant value and create an economic incentive for recycling.
A local battery recycling industry was identified as a potential growth opportunity for Australia due to “uncertainty over the availability of relevant metals”, in the CSIRO’s Australian National Outlook, a long-term planning exercise outlining a path for Australia in 2060.
An example already up-and-running is Envirosteam which launched Australia’s first lithium-ion battery recycling plant in New Gisbourne, Victoria.
Iain Lawrie is a Melbourne University academic investigating policies and planning for future transport technologies. Lawrie said managing growing vehicle waste streams requires a ‘reduce’ and ‘reuse’ approach before ‘recycling’.
Lawrie said this approach should include reducing the use of private vehicles.
He said, “redoubled efforts to increase active and public transport mode shares in our cities is likely to have more significant impact on overall emissions than accelerating a transition to electric vehicles.”
Lawrie argues reducing Australia’s car fleet and private vehicle use would reduce end-of-life vehicle waste as well as lessening environmental impacts from road building, and microparticulate emissions caused through the wear of brakes, tyres and road surfaces.
Lawrie added that the transition to zero emissions buses “presents a significant opportunity to reduce waste and materials demand” particularly as electric buses tend to have fewer moving parts and easier maintenance than their diesel counterparts.
Petra Stock is a Master of Journalism student who has worked in climate change, renewable energy and transport. She also works part-time in climate change for the Australian Conservation Foundation.