Electric vehicles (EVs) are touted as “green” transportation, but they still come with some baggage, including what to do with their spent batteries. It’s yet to be settled, but a lot is happening as governments, automakers, and recyclers work toward a solution.
“The smart people are looking at this as a true circular economy,” said Steve Fletcher, managing director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada. “Canada wants to build batteries and cars, so you need critical materials, the charging structure, the technicians, and then the end-of-life.”
It’s a complex and challenging issue. These used batteries are tough to transport, they contain different materials of various value, and the reclamation processes aren’t always environmentally friendly. Many batteries can have a second career for stationary energy storage, but even that requires time-consuming viability testing.
And there’s another twist. Some governments are proposing extended producer responsibility (EPR), meaning car manufacturers would handle their vehicles’ batteries from cradle to grave. But most automakers don’t want to do it – and auto dismantlers and recyclers do.
When any vehicle gets too old or damaged beyond repair, it goes to a recycler, not back to the automaker. “Right now, we (recyclers) own the battery when we buy an end-of-life (vehicle),” Fletcher said. “They’re not waste. They’re incredibly valuable.”
According to Fletcher, under any EPR mandates, an automaker would be required to take the battery, but not the rest of the car. A conventional vehicle’s engine and transmission are its priciest components, and recyclers make the bulk of their profit on them. If an EV is missing its most valuable part, it’s going to be tougher for recyclers to make money on it – and they are the only ones effectively handling end-of-life vehicles. “We’ll still get all the doors, the bumpers, the traditional collision repair items, and there are critical metals such as a lot of copper, but the electric motors have fewer moving parts and they don’t wear out, so there’s no need for a used one. Don’t expect to take the expensive stuff out of our hands and leave us with the rest of the car.”
Since 2006, California has required retailers to accept non-vehicle batteries for recycling, reuse, or disposal. In 2019, it created an advisory group of stakeholders to look at adding EV batteries to its mandates. One proposal required automakers to take the batteries under EPR. Another required it of the automaker or a recycler, depending on circumstances, such as factory warranty replacement versus a wrecked EV.
The EPR proposal was voted “no” by all automakers represented, except for Tesla, which was in favour of it. For the automaker-or-recycler option, all voted “yes” but Tesla, which abstained. The advisory group also recommended that batteries be clearly labelled with their chemistry. Most are not, making it tougher to sort and evaluate them for recycling.
British Columbia is developing regulated recycling programs with full rollout by 2026, and is requiring that by 2023, batteries and chargers must be designed for easy disassembly for recycling. Quebec proposed EPR for auto manufacturers but withdrew it pending more information from stakeholders. “Everyone involved said, ‘You’re way too early in the game to pick winners and losers,’ “ Fletcher said, “and there are so many market entrants that you will suppress competition by forcing the manufacturers to (take batteries).”
While lithium is a major component in EV batteries, “its recovery doesn’t drive the money,” Fletcher said. “It’s the other critical materials everyone needs, like cobalt, manganese, and nickel.”
Reclamation has its own issues. One process, pyrometallurgy, smelts the battery, burning off unwanted materials to get to the good stuff. It’s energy-hungry and recovers only 25 to 40 per cent of the desired materials. Another is hydrometallurgy, where the battery is shredded and valuable metals are leached out with solvents – better than burning it, but still creating environmental waste.
Canada currently has three battery recycling companies in various stages of development and activity: Retriev Technologies in British Columbia, Li-Cycle in Ontario, and Lithion in Quebec. All are working with, operate, or plan to open plants in the U.S., and the industry as a whole is looking at battery recycling across North America and even globally.
Surprisingly, despite the increasing number of EVs coming to market, one of the biggest issues right now is just getting enough batteries to recycle. “Sometimes you’ll see reports that say battery end-of-life will be an enormous problem because only 5 per cent are recycled,” Fletcher said. “That’s because 95 per cent are still on the road or going into secondary (energy) storage.” He added that most of the lithium currently being recycled isn’t from used batteries, but production scrap. “That will change as (battery production) gets more efficient. These are definitely moving targets.”
Many companies are researching secondary use, including the automakers themselves. Batteries that aren’t sufficient for vehicle use can still be used to store wind or solar energy for later use, or in light-duty equipment such as warehouse carts or forklifts.
Most consumers are focusing primarily on the availability of EVs and charging infrastructure, but battery recycling is already an issue and it’s only going to become more important. Who takes the batteries, how they’re evaluated, how they’re transported, and how they’re broken down and their materials reclaimed, including making it more cost-effective than mining virgin metals, are also essential questions about electric vehicles. “That circular economy has to function properly, or you’ll get bottlenecks or dumping,” Fletcher said. “It’s a field that’s very new and we’re writing a road map for the industry.”