The Problem With Recycling Electric Vehicle Batteries

Last year, global EV numbers shot over two million. The International Energy Agency predicts that, by 2030, this number will exceed 140 million. Not only is the amount of EVs on the road increasing but the size of the batteries used is too.

This begs the question, how are we going to dispose of all the spent lithium-ion batteries?

The Problem

Right now, it’s estimated that as few as 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled. This could, partly, be down to consumer neglect, as many people leave old electronic devices lying around after they’ve upgraded.

If countries meet the Paris climate change targets, the resulting electric vehicle boom would lead to more spent lithium-ion batteries than ever. By 2030, electric vehicles alone could leave up to 11 million tons of lithium-ion batteries which need to be recycled. Without action, we risk releasing dangerous toxins from the damaged lithium-ion batteries.

Why We Aren’t Recycling

Unlike an old mobile phone, an electric vehicle isn’t something you’re going to put in a drawer and forget about. Electric vehicle batteries are simply too big to be kept at home and can’t be left in a landfill. A smelting process is used to recover many minerals, but it alone can’t recover the precious lithium.

After a battery is smelted, the lithium ends up as a mixed byproduct and extracting it is costly. The price of fully recycling a lithium-ion battery is falling towards €1 per kg. The problem is, the value of the raw minerals reclaimed from the process is only a third of that.

tesla battery pack

Jessica Alsford, head of Morgan Stanley’s global sustainable research team, had this to say:

There is a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.

More progress needs to be made to make extracting lithium from recycled batteries financially viable.

Who is Responsible

The European Union and China have already introduced regulations which make automakers responsible for recycling batteries. There is still a question, however, over whether or not automakers will use recycled materials due to liability fears. Many tire manufacturers, for example, are still reluctant to used recycled rubber.

Re-using Versus Recycling

Companies such as Aceleron and Nissan, think the solution is reusing the spent batteries, rather than recycling. Many EV batteries which are ‘spent’ still have up to 70% capacity left – more than enough for other uses.

After used EV batteries have been broken down, tested, and re-packaged, they can be used for things like home energy storage.

Either way, we need a solution for a problem which is getting worse by the month. Do you think it would be fair to make manufacturers foot the bill for recycling, even if it was operating at a loss? Let us know in the comments section.

By Robert Bacon
Updated: January 9, 2018