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A Toyota battery pack undergoes disassembly for recycling at Redwood Materials facility near Reno, Nevada. (Redwood Materials) 

Engineering Sustainability

Electrification, and the high-value electronics content in vehicles, is making materials reuse a key tenet of OEM and supplier business strategies.


Watching a junked school bus being fed into a mammoth hammer mill, which loudly pummeled the bus into fragments of metal, rubber, and plastic, was a sight I’ll never forget. I was visiting Huron Valley Metals, a major scrapyard and recycling facility near Detroit, during reporting for an article on automotive recycling. Seeing that big yellow bus chomped up, with practically 100% of its steel, iron and aluminum content collected for reuse, made clear to me the importance of recyclability and materials choice in product design.      

But a glance at the refuse and recycling containers awaiting curbside pickup in my small town — all headed for the landfill — reveal how little the public knows, and cares, about product end-use. A lack of ready markets plays a role in what currently gets tossed. So does a hodgepodge infrastructure with myriad definitions and rules. Partly as a result, the U.S. plastics recycling rate is just 5%, according to the Dept. of Energy. Effective materials recycling gets far less attention than tailpipe emissions but is equally deserving of industry focus.   

Electrification, and the high-value electronics content in vehicles, are making materials reuse a key tenet of OEM and supplier business strategies. October’s Automotive Engineering print magazine cover feature on EV battery recycling, by veteran environmental reporter Jim Motavalli, details the global enterprise that’s emerging, at scale, and the opportunities and challenges involved. We also look at an innovative “zipper” technology, developed by U.K.-based In2Tec, for reclaiming nearly all the high-value components on discarded PCBs.    

Sustainability is the buzzword du-jour. In some corners it’s hyperbole; at others it’s a mission. I define it simply as living responsibly and getting the maximum use out of all that is manufactured. For SAE readers, “sustainable” means developing products, methods, and systems efficiently, aiming for zero waste and environmental impact. Businesses, often under pressure from investors, regulators, and customers, now are making sustainability integral to their guiding principles. Their suppliers are being required to follow suit; witness the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s new Scope 3 GHG emissions standard that will impact companies at all tiers.  

“There’s a strong push from our OEM customers on sustainability, including requirements related to CO2 emissions in their specifications,” Giulio Ornella, VP of global engineering at Dana Corp. told me recently. He sees Scope 3 as “a huge opportunity” for Dana. In a separate interview Andreas Wolf, CEO of powertrain Tier 1 Vitesco, concurred.  

Sustainability is being institutionalized across the academic and industry landscapes. Stanford University recently launched its Doerr School of Sustainability; MIT has its Sloan Initiative. In business, chief sustainability officer (CSO) is the hottest new management seat. Fortune 500 companies hired more CSOs in 2020 than in the previous three years combined. Even SAE International is on board, launching its Office of Sustainable Energy to help industry tackle complexities in this area. 

So, the bandwagon is rolling. My jaundiced eye sees looming controversy as well as benefits emerging from this movement. Nuclear power, for example, was deemed “unsustainable” in the wake of the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima disasters. Today, however, “nukes” are widely being reconsidered as a key to meeting net-zero carbon targets; Nucor Steel is investing in a new generation of small, modular reactors. And fossil fuels keep the lights and heat on when renewables can’t deliver. Unexpected externalities have a way of turning ideals into compromise. 

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