technology transport

In defence of electric vehicles: waste batteries

The discussion around EVs is politicised, and there are at least four camps. On the positive side you have the government, which has a blind faith in electric cars as a motorist-friendly approach to sustainable transport. Also on this side is Silicon Valley and the techno-optimists, the folks who made EV start-up Arrival the most valuable tech company in the UK without them yet launching a commercial product.

The negative side also has two camps. One of them is the petrol car encumbancy, with all its self-interested scepticism. This includes the oil companies and car manufacturers, but also networks of dealers, and media outlets and voices who know that laughing at EVs plays well with their audiences (yes, you Mr Clarkson). Awkwardly, there are also environmentalists on this side, those who oppose EVs because they are not a radical enough climate solution, or because their vision of a sustainable future is grounded in much more simple technologies.

This latter camp has led to a trend in EV-bashing that, in my opinion, plays into the hands of the fossil fuel companies and those who want to delay the transition. And so I want to address some of the common concerns, and find the balance between embracing EVS without question, and rejecting them outright.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about electric vehicles and local air pollution. This time I want to look at waste batteries. This is a recurring theme – as motoring electrifies, it will inevitably lead to ‘mountains‘ of battery waste.

There is a genuine concern here. Batteries are hard to recycle. They contain toxic and sometimes highly flammable materials and they can be dangerous. Those mountains of battery waste aren’t theoretical – there are already warehouses full of lithium batteries extracted from phones, laptops and energy storage devices piling up. Only a small percentage of these are recycled, with electronic waste already proving to be a major environmental justice question. Too much e-waste is already dumped in Africa and Asia, and the age of electric cars could magnify that problem.

All that is true, but not does not constitute an argument against EVS. It’s an argument for a circular economy, for robust international agreements on waste, for transparency, accountability and justice.

Waves of e-waste are actually a recurring phenomenon. Flat screen TVs led to vast numbers of chunky old ones thrown away. HD televisions then created a second wave. Windows 10 prompted millions of upgrades and lots of discarded computers. All of these situations were also strong arguments for a circular economy and for manufacturer responsibility.

In Europe, Waste Electrical and Electronics Directives have created clear lines of responsibility, and companies need to take back and safely dispose of their own products. Applying producer responsibility regulations to battery manufacturers doesn’t just prevent dumping, it prompts companies to design their products for easy processing, and creates end-of-life plans for batteries.

Not that the car companies need to be forced. To begin with, batteries that are worn out on an EV still have uses elsewhere. They can be reused for domestic storage or grid storage, with years of life left in them. Several car manufacturers already have schemes in place, such as Nissan. The Nissan Leaf is the most common EV on Britain’s roads, and when they reach the end of their usefulness the batteries are refurbished and sold on as part of Nissan’s xStorage domestic battery business.

These batteries will also reach their end of their life of course, but they contain significant amounts of materials, enough to make recycling worthwhile. We’re already seeing companies put systems in place to take back their batteries, from Lumos in Nigeria with their solar storage, to Renault in France.

Where companies aren’t taking responsibility for their batteries themselves, third party businesses are springing up to fill a specific niche. Duesenfeld in Germany is one that I’ve previously profiled, or GEM in China, which is taking advantage of government targets to recycle 70% of all batteries by 2025. These are firms that can take any battery and strip it down, recover the materials and sell them on.

We don’t want to be complacent, especially given the record of environmental injustice on waste. The growth of EVs needs to be accompanied by a circular economy for batteries, and all the solutions for that exist already, if not at scale. But considering the value in batteries, something would have to go very wrong indeed for there to be vast stocks of EV batteries being dumped in future.

3 comments

  1. The one thing I think as well about battery waste; we’ve already spent a huge amount of effort to mine and refine it once, how hard would it be to treat it exactly the same way, which may be even easier, dependent on battery chemistry.

    Yes, the molecular makeup of battery lithium is much different than straight from the earth, but it’s at a much higher concentration per tonne, with all the other materials present also being useful minerals.

    Would that not make it a much easier source of lithium to “mine” once we have enough waste?

    1. Yes, it could be seen as a form of mining and refining. Better approaches will emerge as manufactures design batteries for easier processing, but until then the approach is pretty much as you describe. Duesenfeld pulverise the batteries in a gigantic grinder and then separate out all the elements, which is a form of refining. And GEM in China mine existing waste dumps.

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