This week I wrote about how the electric transport revolution has started from the bottom up in India and China, through ebikes, auto-rickshaws and buses. Those on lower incomes are the first to benefit from electric vehicles, and the numbers of EVs is growing rapidly. China had an estimated 250 million ebikes on the streets last year. There is a government target for 5 million electric cars by 2020, and a million of them are likely to be operated by the country’s leading ride-hailing service, Didi.
This is a rapid change in the way people travel, and if it displaces fossil fuels then it’s very welcome. But there are downsides, and one of them is the rise in waste batteries. If disposed of incorrectly, batteries are highly polluting, especially the lead-acid batteries used in cheaper ebikes.
China currently produces 3.3 million tons of waste lead-acid batteries a year, and fewer than 30% of them are disposed of responsibly. The government has been clamping down on black market battery processing companies, and has a target of 70% recycled by 2025.
This is a waste problem, but it’s also a massive business opportunity. Processing the batteries from electric cars is forecast to be a $5 billion industry by 2023. One of the companies positioning itself to take advantage of that boom is GEM China, a waste processing corporation that was nominated in the Circular Awards in 2018. It is China’s biggest processor of waste batteries, handling about 10% of the total and extracting metals such as nickel and cobalt for reuse. They are expanding their capacity to recycle lithium ion batteries, and have a network of collection points in shops and schools to collect household batteries.
GEM has built a series of ‘centres of excellence’ around the country to expand its recycling operations. They are also a leader in ‘urban mining‘, and they run disassembly lines for a variety of household appliances so that they can be taken apart and recycled. In total, the company processed 3 million tonnes of waste in 2016.
The electric transport revolution will produce mountains of dead batteries and e-waste. As governments bring in policies to promote electrification, that should be matched with legislation to control and incentivise battery waste. Since old batteries contain valuable materials as well as hazardous waste, this can be an opportunity to create businesses and jobs in the circular economy.