In Solving One Climate Crisis, Let’s Not Create Another

Batteries will power the future in a world without fossil fuels. Yet as we tackle one source of environmental degradation, we could sleepwalk into another. The era of electric vehicles is upon us, and the recyclability of their batteries has already become a battle-cry for Elon-skeptics.

A flood of retired EV batteries is heading toward us, and we’re not prepared. Batteries contaminate the Earth, poison humans and wildlife and destroy ecosystems. Judging by our current performance, the future looks bleak; only 5 percent of batteries are recycled in the U.S. and Europe today.

To avoid exacerbating another environmental catastrophe, recycling batteries needs to enter the public consciousness, just like recycling cardboard. We need public awareness, investor uptake and political support if we want to enjoy a truly green 21st century.

Electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries. These are the same batteries that fuel our personal and professional lives through our laptops and smartphones. They’re all 100 percent recyclable, yet just because they can be recycled, that doesn’t mean they are.

This problem is set to become a whole lot worse, as both consumer electronics and EVs become even more ubiquitous; analysts predict that by 2030, the world will generate 2 million metric tons of lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries can present safety risks to people, property and the environment if they are improperly handled, stored or disposed of. According to battery management leader Call2Recycle, if batteries, especially lithium-based, are thrown into the garbage, they can overheat or short circuit and cause a fire “that could endanger individuals and surrounding property.”

During 2019, Waste360 reported 333 landfill fires, resulting in 48 inquiries and five deaths. Beyond the human tragedy, these fires emit dangerous greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and pose risk to large scale forest fires and damage to property.

Strides have been made in recycling over the past 20 years, but battery recycling still lags behind. Our capability to recycle batteries, combined with our awareness and motivation to do so, are all worryingly low. The exponential rise in the use of lithium-ion batteries left the recycling infrastructure with plenty of catching up to do. Recyclers are currently racing to ramp up capacity as experts predict that by 2025, 398,000 tons of batteries will begin to age out of electric vehicles and will need to be reused, recycled, or become waste.

Aggressive PR campaigns have forced the recycling of plastics, cardboard and glass into the public consciousness. Worryingly, a similar awareness push is yet to emerge for batteries. Throwing out our cardboard has become taboo; that same taboo needs to extend to batteries too.

Beyond the environmental impact of battery recycling, there also lies a huge economic opportunity. There’s approximately 10 times more copper in electric vehicles than in traditional ones. The demand for electric vehicles will also drive up the demand for copper, which is set to reach 1,700 kilotons by 2027.

Copper is an expensive metal that when recycled, could contribute to the creation of a functioning circular economy. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that 60 percent of all copper comes from recycled scrap, and in 2018, U.S. recyclers recovered 870,000 metric tons of copper, which met 34 percent of the U.S. market’s needs.

This is a huge business opportunity that we are overlooking. By bolstering our battery recycling infrastructure, we can super-charge our electric vehicle production, while relying less on having to mine precious metals from abroad.

Action is being taken, just not at the scale needed. In the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently working its way through Congress, a recent draft included over $6 billion for the battery manufacturing industry—roughly half of that money could go toward recycling.

A few weeks ago, JB Straubel, a name that may sound familiar to some as the co-founder of Tesla, was interviewed by CNBC about his latest venture’s investments in building the largest battery recycling plants in North America.

New legislation is also slowly beginning to take shape. At the start of the year, Washington, D.C. mandated that no producer will be allowed to dispose of batteries except through battery recycling programs, and this will apply to residents and businesses from the start of 2023.

But there are still 25 states where absolutely no legislation exists for battery or electronic recycling as a whole. The electric car revolution will be a net benefit for our fight against climate change, but only if we manage it responsibly.

We must focus on what is in front of us. There are more electronic devices out there now than there are human beings; if we don’t make battery recycling part of our everyday lives, we’ll have another environmental crisis on our hands.

The majority of people are yet to drive electric cars. When they do, we’ll need far better battery recycling infrastructure and awareness. But before we focus on recycling hypothetical batteries, we must first focus on real ones. This is a test-run; if we fail to supercharge our battery recycling now, we’ll remain woefully unprepared for what the future will bring.

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