EV Battery Recycling: Who’s Going To Do It?
Governments are grappling with this emerging industry.
Electric vehicles are all about “going green,” but their purchase is only part of the story. What happens to them at end-of-life is also an important element of the equation, but we’re still in the early days. There’s still a lot of discussion but no final decision yet on who will ultimately be responsible for EV battery recycling.
“The smart people are looking at this as a true circular economy,” said Steve Fletcher, Managing Director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada, which has 350 members nationally. “Canada wants to build batteries and cars, so you need critical materials, the charging structure, the technicians, and then the end-of-life.”
Proposals for programs
So far, neither Canada nor the U.S. have enacted recycling mandates, at the federal or provincial/state level, but proposals are in the works. British Columbia is developing battery recycling programs, and has required EV batteries and chargers to be recyclable by 2023 under its Recycling Regulation and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) strategy. Under EPR, batteries should be designed by their manufacturers not just for power performance, but for ease of disassembly for recycling and reuse.
B.C. has also expanded EPR to include regulated recycling of EV batteries in phases. The program would begin in late 2023 or early 2024, and be in full operation by 2026. The B.C.-based Pembina Institute, a think tank for environmental concerns, has called on provincial leaders to work with the federal government on requirements for recycled materials to go into new batteries made in Canada, as well as standardize battery labels for their chemistry information. It said this will “close the loop on the materials chain and spur investment in recycling capacity.”
Early in the game
Quebec also proposed EPR for those making and selling the vehicles, but “has withdrawn that because everyone involved said you’re way too early in the game to pick winners and losers, and there are so many market entrants that you will suppress competition by forcing the manufacturers to (take batteries),” Fletcher said. “It’s been withdrawn pending further information, including from us.”
California is also working on similar proposals. Its Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act of 2006 required retailers to accept and collect non-vehicle batteries for reuse, recycling or disposal. In 2019 it assembled an advisory group to work on updates to include EV batteries. The group of stakeholders recommended mandatory recycling, along with two different proposals. One was EPR by the vehicle manufacturer. The other proposal was to make it the responsibility of the automaker or the dismantler, depending on individual circumstances, such warranty replacement by the automaker versus vehicle end-of-life.
Recyclers want the batteries
The automaker/dismantler proposal received the majority of votes from all group members at 93%. Among automakers represented in the advisory group, all but Tesla voted against the first proposal. All supported the second proposal except for Tesla, which abstained.
That second proposal is Fletcher’s choice in order for recyclers to see the necessary profit in end-of-life vehicles. “In an ICE, our money is primarily in the engine and transmission,” he said. “If the automaker takes the battery, that’s the valuable item. The electric motors have fewer moving parts and they don’t wear out, so there’s no need for a used one.”
Recyclers will still get collision replacement items like doors and bumpers, he said, and EVs contain more copper, but the vital job recyclers do with the rest of the vehicle won’t be enough without that major component. “Don’t expect to take the expensive stuff out of our hands and leave us with the rest of the car.”
Our borders and beyond
Canada currently has three major battery recyclers, in various stages of development and activity, including B.C.-based Retriev Technologies, part of Cirba Solutions; Li-Cycle in Ontario; and Lithion in Quebec.
Alongside these companies, Fletcher is looking at recycling across North America. “It’s such a complex supply chain,” he said.
Right now, most recycling is in the early stages, and the biggest issue is simply getting enough batteries to develop the processes. “Only 5% are recycled, because 95% (of EV batteries) are still on the road or going into secondary energy storage,” he said. “Ninety percent of lithium recycling is production scrap. That will change as (production) gets more efficient. These are definitely moving targets.”
Even so, lithium isn’t the big deal. “Its recovery doesn’t drive the money. It’s the other critical materials everyone needs, like cobalt, manganese and nickel. It’s a field that’s very new and we’re writing a road map for the industry.”