Among sectors in the United States, the transportation sector contributes the most to greenhouse gas emissions (USEPA, 2018) at 28%. A complex mix of market dynamics, demographics, and technological changes like material type (e.g. lightweighting techniques), fuel type (e.g. biogas), vehicle mode (e.g. internal combustion) and recyclability (Lewis et al., 2019) is employed to combat theses emissions. While these changes presumably effect linear level contributions and impacts, it is important to objectively determine their effects and impacts at a systems level. This research studied the material use implication of two major technological changes – lightweighting and electrification. The study involved the quantification and analysis of losses attributed to the dissipation of critical and strategic metals – e.g., copper (Cu), magnesium (Mg), chromium (Cr), etc. – and examined the attendant accumulation of tramp elements in the recycled lightweight material stream. The increasing demand for Cu in the adoption of electric vehicles was also analyzed. Finally, the study analyzes the impacts of these transitions on other industries that may be directly or indirectly connected to the automotive industry at different life cycle stages of the typical vehicle. Results show that the “losses” associated with these transitions are not insignificant and occur throughout the life cycle of the vehicle. They are particularly concentrated at the end-of-life stage of the vehicle and thus technological and operational strategies need to be employed to abate these losses and improve material circularity. In addition, the transition to electrification results in an increase in the demand for Cu that will, in the long-term, lead to a strain in copper supply. Therefore, enhancing alternative sourcing for Cu from post-consumer scrap is imperative for a long-term sustenance of vehicle electrification. Further observation of the flow of Cu, at its end-of-life, shows that while an alarming volume of copper may be recorded as “loss”, and thus not achieving a closed copper cycle loop, a significant portion of it should more appropriately be characterized as “unusable in the copper stream” as it is technically not lost, but trapped in other material stream. Therefore, while non-circularity might linearly exist for copper, an elevated point of view might show an interconnected circularity with other material stream that is acceptable from a sustainability standpoint. Secondly, the trade ban on scrap export to China – the largest importer of U.S. copper scrap – has presumably impacted the usual modus operandi in scrap processing, causing a disruption in the flow of copper and a local accumulation of copper scrap that is normally not domestically processed for recycling. This, as a result, has led to an increase in the recent volumes that are recorded as “lost” in the copper cycle. Regardless of the lift (or not) of the trade ban, it is important to incorporate improved recycling technologies to eliminate losses because of abandoned, but recyclable material to ensure a robust secondary copper supply. It is also acknowledged that policy mandates and interventions will play a huge role in achieving this goal.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Automobile industry and trade--Environmental aspects; Automobile industry and trade--Forecasting; Copper--Economic aspects

Publication Date


Document Type


Student Type


Degree Name

Sustainability (Ph.D.)

Department, Program, or Center

Sustainability (GIS)


Gabrielle Gaustad

Advisor/Committee Member

Doreen Edwards

Advisor/Committee Member

Thomas Trabold


RIT – Main Campus

Plan Codes