In September, Tesla announced it would stop using cobalt in its batteries to produce an electric vehicle worth $ 25,000 within three years. If successful, this bold move will fundamentally change the industry and make electric vehicles competitive against conventional counterparts. But the announcement also underscores one of the fundamental challenges that will make the transition to electric vehicles difficult. 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 move to electric vehicles was promoted as an important, necessary step in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to ward off the worst effects of a changing climate. The switch would also significantly reduce the health risks associated with vehicle emissions. Every major automaker now has at least one electric vehicle in production, and some – including Daimler, Volkswagen and General Motors – have pledged to cease production of gas and diesel engines entirely. More than a dozen countries, including many in Europe, have announced that they will ban the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040 or earlier. California also just announced a plan to phase out gas and diesel cars by 2035.
But electric cars have their own dirty little secret: All electric vehicles and most hybrid vehicles rely on large lithium-ion batteries that weigh several hundred pounds. One of the largest, the battery for the Mercedes-Benz EQC, weighs 1,400 pounds. These batteries are typically made from cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among others. They cost thousands of dollars and have an impact on the environment: they require ingredients sourced from polluting mines and smelters around the world and can ultimately contaminate soil and water supplies if improperly disposed of.
In a rush to take advantage of this technology, automotive companies are making the same claim that the plastics industry has made: they claim that used batteries will be recycled. However, the truth is swept under the rug. None of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles can be recycled in the same way as car batteries made of paper, glass and lead. Although efforts are being made to improve recycling methods, generally only about half of the materials in these batteries are currently extracted and used for other purposes. And without the most valuable ingredients, there will be little economic incentive to invest in recycling technologies. The result could be a massive health and environmental crisis if nothing is done to tip the scales.
Despite ongoing research into recycling technology, this situation is unlikely to resolve on its own. Lithium-ion battery manufacturers have yet to develop the technology that can economically extract components in a form from which new lithium-ion batteries can be made. Rather, the batteries are typically processed to remove the cobalt and some other expensive metals, with much of the remainder being released as air emissions or used as a filler in concrete or other building products. This is one reason why less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are currently being recycled.
To make matters worse, different battery manufacturers use different ingredients, cells and modules, which makes the extraction process less efficient and more expensive. In fact, manufacturers don’t even have to disclose the contents of their batteries to potential recyclers.
To address the inevitable growth of this waste stream, manufacturers and proponents of electric vehicles are campaigning for these batteries to be reusable in vehicles after their useful life has expired. Some companies have made efforts to reuse these high voltage electric vehicle combustible batteries for solar energy storage and other emergency power applications by rebuilding batteries using a combination of reused and new parts. But even if these efforts were successful in developing technologies to safely and economically remove, transport, disassemble, and recycle batteries, it would only delay the ultimate fate of a battery for a few years.
The business model for recycling is getting tougher as Tesla and other automakers take steps to cut costs by removing the most expensive metal components from their battery designs. Even if automotive companies only manage to reduce the concentration of these components, financial incentives are needed to ensure that these batteries are collected and recycled. These subsidies are designed to make up the difference between the cost of transporting and processing used batteries and the value of the extracted materials.
Without these incentives, lithium-ion batteries will be dumped, incinerated, or exported to countries with lower standards, where they will contaminate the environment and endanger public health. Nickel has been shown to cause lung and nose cancers, decrease lung function, and cause bronchitis. Cobalt can cause serious health problems such as asthma and pneumonia, and is potentially carcinogenic. Exposure to manganese can lead to breathing problems, loss of coordination, and other neurological problems.
We have already started shifting the burden of disposing of lithium-ion batteries to low- and middle-income countries, many of which do not have strict environmental regulations or the ability to recycle or otherwise process used batteries in an environmentally friendly way. Some have even put in place incentives, including tax exemptions, to encourage imports of used electric and hybrid vehicles. A recent United Nations report found that hundreds of thousands of electric and hybrid vehicles are exported annually from Japan, the EU and the US to countries like Sri Lanka and Mauritius.
To avoid these trends accelerating, regulations are needed as we move to a future for electric vehicles. While China and the EU require EV manufacturers to take back used batteries from consumers, no similar regulations or laws have been passed in the US. The US track record of e-waste recycling doesn’t come as a relief. Only three states have expanded manufacturer liability laws that require manufacturers to take back lithium-ion batteries used in electronics, and none include vehicles. There are no clear bans on exporting used lithium-ion batteries or selling used vehicles with deteriorated batteries to low-income countries at fire-sale prices.
However, these are still the early days and there is still time to implement legislative solutions that can help avert an impending waste crisis. To this end, California’s Environmental Protection Agency has set up a multi-stakeholder committee of which I am a member to advise state lawmakers on how to work out practical solutions.
Today, most EVs sell on the luxury end of the market, with sticker prices as high as $ 150,000. The federal government subsidizes these sales – like some state governments – to support electric cars in competition with conventional vehicles. As battery prices and production costs decrease, such subsidies are no longer needed. In anticipation of the expected increase in sales, we must now start planning a future in which individual lithium-ion battery usage will transition from the 1-ounce battery in your cell phone to the giant in your garage.
This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.