Electric Cars’ Looming Recycling Problem

Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Financial incentives to recycle spent electric vehicle batteries are eroding. That could spell environmental disaster.

In September, Tesla announced that it would be phasing out the use of cobalt in its batteries, in an effort to produce a $25,000 electric vehicle within three years. If successful, this bold move will be an industry game changer, making electric vehicles competitive with conventional counterparts. But the announcement also underscores one of the fundamental challenges that will complicate the transition to electric vehicles. Without cobalt, there may be little financial incentive to recycle the massive batteries used to power the cars — and that could lead to an environmental disaster.

The switch to electric vehicles has been promoted as a major, necessary step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the worst effects of a changing climate. The switch would also significantly reduce health risks associated with vehicle emissions. Every major auto manufacturer now has at least one electric vehicle in production, and some — including Daimler, Volkswagen, and General Motors — have pledged to phase out the production of gas and diesel engines entirely. More than a dozen countries, including many in Europe, have said they plan to ban sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040 or sooner. California also just announced a plan to phase out gas and diesel cars by 2035.

But electric cars have their own dirty little secret: Every electric vehicle, and most hybrid vehicles, rely on large lithium-ion batteries weighing hundreds of pounds. One of the largest, the battery for the Mercedes-Benz EQC, comes in at 1,400 pounds. Typically made with cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among other components, these batteries cost thousands of dollars and come with an environmental burden: They require ingredients sourced from polluting mines and smelters around the world, and they can ultimately contaminate soil and water supplies if improperly disposed.

In the rush to embrace this technology, auto companies are adopting the same pretense that has been embraced by the plastics industry: They are claiming that used batteries will be recycled. However, the truth is being swept under the rug. None of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are recyclable in the same sense that paper, glass, and lead car batteries are. Although efforts to improve recycling methods are underway, generally only around half the materials in these batteries is currently extracted and repurposed. And without the most valuable ingredients, there will be little economic incentive to invest in recycling technologies. The result, if nothing is done to tip the scales, could be a massive health and environmental crisis.

Despite ongoing research into recycling technology, this situation is unlikely to resolve itself. Lithium-ion battery makers have yet to develop the technology that can economically extract components in a form that can be used to make new lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the batteries are typically processed to remove the cobalt and a few other expensive metals, with much of the remainder released as air emissions or used as filler in concrete or other construction products. This is one reason why less than 5 percent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled.

Complicating matters further, different battery makers use different ingredients, cells, and modules, which makes the extraction process less efficient and more expensive. In fact, manufacturers are not even required to disclose the contents of their batteries to would-be recyclers.

To account for the inevitable growth in this waste stream, manufacturers and electric vehicle advocates are touting the potential for these batteries to be reused after their useful life in vehicles has been realized. Some companies have launched efforts to repurpose these high voltage, flammable electric vehicle batteries for solar energy storage and other backup power applications by rebuilding batteries using a combination of reused and new parts. But even if these efforts succeed in developing technologies to safely and economically remove, transport, dismantle, and remanufacture batteries, this would simply delay a battery’s ultimate fate by a few years.

The business case for recycling will become even more tenuous as Tesla and other car manufacturers take steps to lower costs by eliminating the most expensive metal components from their battery designs. Even if auto companies succeed only at reducing the concentration of these components, financial incentives will be needed to ensure that these batteries are collected and recycled. These subsidies will need to make up for the difference between the cost of transporting and processing spent batteries and the value of the extracted materials.

Without these incentives, lithium-ion batteries will be dumped, incinerated, or exported to countries with weaker standards, where they will contaminate the environment and threaten public health. Nickel has been shown to cause lung and nasal cancers, reduce lung function, and cause bronchitis. Cobalt can cause serious health conditions such as asthma and pneumonia, and it is a possible carcinogen. Exposure to manganese can result in respiratory problems, loss of coordination, and other neurological problems.

We have already started shifting the burden of lithium-ion battery disposal to low- and middle-income countries, many of which lack stringent environmental safeguards and the facilities to recycle or otherwise process used batteries in an environmentally sound way. Some have even put in place incentives, including tax waivers, to encourage used electric and hybrid vehicle imports. A recent United Nations report found that hundreds of thousands of electric and hybrid vehicles are being exported annually from Japan, the E.U. and the U.S. to countries like Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

To avoid the acceleration of these trends, regulations will be needed as we shift to an electric vehicle future. Whereas China and the E.U. require electric vehicle manufacturers to take back spent batteries from consumers, no similar regulation or legislation has been adopted in the U.S. The track record in the U.S. for recycling e-waste does not offer much relief. Only three states have extended producer responsibility laws mandating that manufacturers take back lithium-ion batteries used in electronics, and none include vehicles. There are no clear prohibitions against exporting used lithium-ion batteries or selling used vehicles with degraded batteries to low-income countries at fire-sale prices.

But these are still early days, and there is still time to implement legislative solutions that can help avert an impending waste crisis. To that end, the California Environmental Protection Agency has formed a multi-stakeholder committee, of which I am a member, that will advise the state legislature on crafting practical solutions.

Today, most electric vehicles retail at the luxury end of the market, with sticker prices up to $150,000. The federal government subsidizes these sales — as do some state governments — to help electric cars compete with conventional vehicles. But as battery prices and production costs fall, such subsides will no longer be needed. In anticipation of the expected increase in sales, we must start now to plan for a future when individual lithium-ion battery consumption transitions from the one-ounce battery in your cell phone to the behemoth in your garage.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Perry Gottesfeld is the executive director of Occupational Knowledge International and a member of the California Environmental Protection Agency's Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group.

NEXT STORY: To Unlock the Full Potential of Data, Local Governments Need The Right Talent

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.