Benedikt Sobotka warns that the lack of recycling capability could dramatically limit the speed at which the EV transition takes place
Transportation currently accounts for 37% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency, which means the decarbonisation of the transport sector forms an essential part of any serious plan to address climate change. At the heart of this process is the transition from traditional, internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs).
Global electric car sales have continued on a strong upward trend in 2022, with 2 million sold in the first quarter—a 75% increase from the same period in 2021. However, to keep meeting this rapidly rising demand, greater attention must be placed on the reuse, repurposing and recycling of the batteries that power EVs.
Current EV battery recycling market
At present, only around 5% of lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are recycled globally, which is a concerning state of affairs, particularly when Greenpeace predicts that over 12 million metric tonnes of Li-ion batteries are expected to retire by 2030. Not only is this an enormous amount of waste, but the lack of recycling capability could dramatically limit the speed at which the EV transition takes place.
This problem has been recognised and is, to a certain extent, being addressed, with a recent spate of investments in recycling infrastructure and technology. For example, in the UK, companies along the supply chain such as Veolia, BritishVolt and European Metal Recycling have all announced major recycling projects in 2022, which will collectively process tens of thousands of tonnes of batteries annually. The impact of this could be significant for the UK; with the help of projects like these, the WMG team at the University of Warwick predicts that recycling could supply 22% of the nation’s required battery material by 2040.
Continental Europe is also seeing growth in the recycling sector. Just look at Volkswagen, which recently announced a battery recycling pilot in Germany that could recycle up to 97% of the components of a battery, or Renault, which is looking to repurpose EV batteries as energy storage in France.
12 million metric tonnes of Li-ion batteries are expected to retire by 2030
However, the recycling of Li-ion batteries still lags behind the rapidly developing EV manufacturing industry, both in terms of investment and technology. There are many reasons for this, including the economic viability of recycling batteries, the technological complexity of reprocessing varied and fast evolving battery types, and logistical friction points as a result of regulatory issues.
Environmental case for EV battery recycling
Currently, one of the major issues with EV batteries is their contribution to environmental degradation in landfills and areas where they are disposed. Some of the key components of batteries, such as copper, nickel and lead, can be highly toxic. As the batteries decay, these chemicals can leak into the surrounding area, causing harm to the local ecosystems.
Lead acid batteries present a risk, with one in three children globally exposed to lead poisoning as a result of inadequate lead-acid battery recycling, according to a report by UNICEF and Pure Earth. The long-term harm this can cause if not tackled is staggering. It is estimated that lead poisoning is responsible for a reduction of around 2% of GDP in Asia and 4% in Africa due to the impact on productivity in some communities. Improving the battery recycling rate to battery disposal rate ratio can reduce the harmful impact of EVs on the environment—and on humans.
Recycling can also contribute more broadly to the fight against climate change through the supply of commodities needed to support the energy transition. These materials also play a significant role in facilitating the implementation of renewable energy generation methods. For example, solar and offshore wind needs to and five times as much copper respectively than traditional energy generation methods.
Historic underinvestment in mining projects, coupled with the long lead times for their development, means that the supply of metals like cobalt and copper will struggle to keep up with the demand driven by the increased use of renewables. Recycling the used metal from batteries can support the manufacture of a wide range of clean energy technologies and accelerate action against global warming.
Economic arguments for recycling batteries
While the environmental advantages of recycling are clear, in a world where companies and governments often prioritise returns and profitability, it is important to also reflect on the economic benefits of increasing the recycling rate of EV batteries. First off, supporting the supply of key minerals will temper metal prices which otherwise might surge uncontrollably. In turn, this controls the price of EVs at the point of sale, making them more accessible to the consumer and accelerating their uptake and the shift towards clean transport.
However, the economic benefits are much wider than this. Currently, recycling infrastructure and the recycling industry is in need of significant development and further investment. The expansion of the industry supply chains will create new jobs, boost economic activity and spur growth. In fact, the global lithium-ion battery market is projected to grow from US$4.6bn in 2021 to US$22.8bn by 2030, according to Markets and Markets. And while in the short term, the markets for repurposing and recycling may compete for end of life battery volumes, in the longer term, there is no doubt: the markets are complementary. Repurposed batteries will eventually require recycling.
This growth in itself can provide a much-needed boost, especially to regions such as some African countries, where the battery recycling industry is extremely underdeveloped. But beyond that, while these countries will benefit from job creation, skills diversification and increased economic activity, the repurposing of batteries can improve their economies much more directly. Repurposed batteries can enable increased energy access where there is a large gap between those with access to electricity, and those without it.
Can a ‘Battery Passport’ help?
Battery recycling will clearly be a force for good. However, there remain obstacles to the industry’s development which must be overcome if it is to reach its full potential. Differing regulations means that there are often friction points which prevent or stall the transboundary movement of lithium-ion batteries for recycling and repurposing. Additionally, as batteries evolve to become more efficient, longer lasting and safer, they become more complex—as does recycling them.
A solution can be found in providing more transparency and information on the battery cycle and its period of utilisation in the EV. Making this information available to relevant stakeholders, governments and companies can ensure that any particular battery is suitable for recycling, conforms to relevant standards, and has the necessary components to make recycling or reuse possible.
The Global Battery Alliance (GBA), the largest multi-stakeholder organisation of its kind, comprises around 110 national governments, industry actors, and NGOs—including WEF, UNICEF, Eurasian Resources Group, BMW and Tesla—and is working to solve some of these issues.
As batteries evolve to become more efficient, longer lasting and safer, they become more complex—as does recycling them
The GBA is developing a ‘Battery Passport’, which will give every battery an identity, acting as a digital twin of the battery to record important information across its entire lifecycle. It will provide end-users with key data about its material provenance, chemical make-up, manufacturing history, as well as applicable ESG and lifecycle requirements, based on the comprehensive definition of a sustainable battery. This technical data will be collected from value chain stakeholders including mining companies, refiners, cell producers, module producers, battery producers, automotive OEMs and recyclers.
By setting relevant performance indicators, and tracking and validating battery performance against these indicators, the GBA’s Battery Passport will therefore create greater transparency across the value chain and facilitate resource efficiency, life extension, safe second use and stronger battery recycling.
More widely, the Battery Passport is a prime exemplar of an engine-room initiative that can have serious governance impact that reaches all levels of society. From helping safeguard those at the coalface of production, to ensuring the quality of a battery thousands of kilometres away to a consumer, the Battery Passport has the potential to touch every aspect of how we engage with the 21st century’s breakthrough electric technologies.