As the automotive world wakes up to the ways its products interact with the environment, electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling is critical to reducing the negative impacts of EV production on the environment, human rights, and citizens' health in regions where battery materials are mined and processed.
This conclusion from the Union of Concerned Scientists summarizes a fact sheet it issued about EV battery recycling. The fact sheet takes an analytical look at the issue, trying to make sure that any potential environmental and societal problems EVs might cause will not catch the world with the same level of surprise that fossil-fuel use did towards the end of the 20th century.
Can EV Batteries Be Recycled?
Yes, EV batteries can be recycled, but it takes work. As with any recycling project, the basic idea is to collect a product that has finished serving its useful life, then take it apart and re-use the components in new products.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) predicts that if the United States invests in EV battery recycling and develops low-cobalt and no-cobalt battery chemistries, it could solve looming environmental and ethical concerns. By collecting and recovering up to 95% of the relevant metals in a spent battery pack, a robust EV battery recycling plan could help automakers "meet about 30% to 40% of the anticipated material demand for lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, and graphite in passenger BEVs…by 2035."
That might seem like a challenging target, but the wheels are already in motion.
Who Recycles EV Batteries?
The UCS notes that there are only about ten recycling facilities for EV batteries operating in the world today. One is called Li-Cycle, which accepts batteries from across North America and can process more than 5,000 tons of lithium-ion batteries per year.
Some automakers involved in manufacturing electric vehicles are also looking at ways to recycle their EVs' batteries.
The Volkswagen Group, for example, started researching battery recycling in 2009, in part inspired by doctoral student Stella Konietzko. VW now operates a battery recycling plant that uses a recycling process called LithoRec in Salzgitter, Germany. The automaker has stated that it wants to create its own "circular process in which more than 90% of each of our batteries is recycled," said Thomas Tiedje, head of technical planning at Volkswagen Component, in a statement.
Volvo Cars also offers a battery recycling service today. If you have a lithium-ion battery from a Volvo hybrid or EV that you don't want, you can ask Volvo to come and pick it up. Volvo says it will then "either service the battery for re-use or recycle it in a responsible way."
Volvo doesn't name its recycling partners. It does assure that old packs "are recycled at special, designated battery recyclers to ensure that they are taken care of in a responsible way." The collection happens "in line with all applicable rules and regulations in your region, as well as in accordance with our climate plan," Volvo said.
Electric Car Battery Recycling Improves Sustainability, Social Responsibility of EVs
The core minerals used in lithium-ion battery construction are lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel, and manganese. Mining, processing, and transporting these minerals from the regions of the world in which they are found take a negative toll on the environment.
Furthermore, the UCS reports that 51% of the world's cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Human Rights Watch says government corruption and human rights abuses are common.
Investment in electric car battery recycling "reduces the need for extracting, refining, and transporting new minerals," according to the UCS. The organization also asserts that "recycled materials from used batteries could meet a significant portion of new EV battery demand."