There are, however, grounds for optimism. Thus far, the poor rates of lithium-ion battery recycling can be explained by the fact that most are contained within consumer electronics, which commonly end up neglected in a drawer or chucked into landfill.
This won’t happen with electric vehicles, predicts Marc Grynberg, chief executive of Belgian battery and recycling giant Umicore. “Car producers will be accountable for the collection and recycling of spent lithium-ion batteries,” he says. “Given their sheer size, batteries cannot be stored at home and landfilling is not an option.”
EU Regulations, which require the makers of batteries to finance the costs of collecting, treating and recycling all collected batteries, are already encouraging tie-ups between carmakers and recyclers.
Umicore, which has invested €25m (£22.6m) into an industrial pilot plant in Antwerp to recycle lithium-ion batteries, has deals in Europe with both Tesla and Toyota to use smelting to recover precious metals such as cobalt and nickel. Grynberg says: “We have proven capabilities to recycle spent batteries from electric vehicles and are prepared to scale them up when needed.”
Problem solved? Not exactly. While commercial smelting processes such as Umicore’s can easily recover many metals, they can’t directly recover the vital lithium, which ends up in a mixed byproduct. Umicore says it can reclaim lithium from the byproduct, but each extra process adds cost.
This means that while electric vehicle batteries might be taken to recycling facilities, there’s no guarantee the lithium itself will be recovered if it doesn’t pay to do so.
Investment bank Morgan Stanley in June said it forecast no recycling of lithium at all over the decade ahead, and that there risked being insufficient recycling infrastructure in place when the current wave of batteries die. “There still needs to be more development to get to closed loop recycling where all materials are reclaimed,” says Jessica Alsford, head of the bank’s global sustainable research team. “There’s a difference between being able to do something and it making economic sense.”