Circular – Creating a sustainable battery value chain

Publication: Circular
Date: 25 August 2020

Can a ‘battery passport’ strengthen recycling practices and prevent unsustainable waste, asks Benedikt Sobotka, CEO of Eurasian Resources Group, and co-chair of the Global Battery Alliance.

While attention is rightly being paid to the huge volumes of pandemic-related waste from single-use protective equipment, with claims that we may soon have “more masks than jellyfish” in our oceans, another, more discreet type of waste must not be overlooked – namely, battery waste.

Demand for lithium-ion batteries, which underpin electrification, is set to increase 19 times by 2030, according to research by the Global Battery Alliance.

By that point, industry analysts expect that up to 11 million tonnes of batteries will have reached their end of life.

Left unchecked, this could create a significant waste issue with adverse economic and environmental consequences.

Currently, battery recycling rates come in at less than 5% across the US, Europe and Australia. Unless efforts are heightened across industry, this discrepancy between battery usage and recycling rates is only set to increase in line with the rapid uptake of energy storage solutions and electric vehicles that are powered by those batteries.

Whereas global sales of combustion engine vehicles are forecast to fall by 22% this year, electric vehicles have reached record penetration rates across Europe in 2020, having already seen a 40% year-on-year increase in global sales in 2019.

Whilst the shift towards e-mobility is a strong driver of the low-carbon transition, it is important that it does not lead to inadvertent environmental challenges down the line.

The elephant in the room

Waste was described by Dr Amrit Chandan, CEO and Co-Founder of battery solutions company Aceleron, as “the elephant in the room,” cautioning that we should not be solving one sustainability issue while ignoring another.

A study recently published by researchers at the University of Birmingham highlighted that recycling technologies for end-of-life lithium-ion batteries are not keeping pace with the rapid rise of EVs.

In 2017, when worldwide sales of electric vehicles exceeded one million cars per year for the first time, it was calculated that the vehicles would leave approximately 250kt of unprocessed battery waste when reaching the end of their lives (Nature).

Some countries are taking note. Germany’s Battery Law, for example, states that at least 45% of batteries put on the market must be collected and treated – a law that was recently amended to impose additional obligations on manufacturers, after the current system of battery take-back was deemed unsustainable.

The UK government has also committed £12 million to funding research into electric vehicles, with a focus on recyclable, sustainable batteries (Intelligent Transport).

The UK, however, still lacks a recycling facility, while Germany’s law is not without its critics; waste management officials and recycling companies including Accurec and NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH) are calling for the country’s Battery Law to go further, arguing it does not meet the challenges of the growing battery market.

The DUH has urged for the collection rate for portable batteries to be increased from 45% to 65% in the next year, and 85% from 2023.

At any rate, it is clear that there is currently no uniform global policy on how to effectively manage battery waste. Liang An, a battery-recycling specialist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, attributes this partly to the complex make-up of batteries, noting that Li-ion batteries contain “a wide diversity of ever-evolving materials, which makes recycling challenging.”

Similarly, Linda L. Gaines, a specialist in materials and life-cycle analysis from Argonne National Laboratory, says that “Li-ion battery recycling is not yet a universally well-established practice” due to factors including technical constraints and regulatory gaps.

Circular battery value chain

Addressing these issues is part of the Global Battery Alliance’s (GBA) Ten Guiding Principles, a public-private collaboration platform of more than 70 members, ranging from OEMs to tech and mining businesses, national governments and civil society institutions.

Since its launch in 2017, the Alliance has been working to accelerate and scale up efforts towards creating a sustainable battery value chain.

As part of this, the GBA is developing a white paper recommending steps to address barriers associated with the transboundary movement of batteries. These barriers can prevent the effective establishment of a circular battery value chain which includes battery second life and recycling.

Governments must play a critical role, as current relevant regulatory structures are not designed to enable a circular value chain.

Key to strengthening battery recycling is also the ‘Battery Passport’ which is one of the GBA’s core initiatives. Launched at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this year, the Passport will act as a type of quality seal on a global digital lifecycle platform for sharing value chain data of batteries.

The Passport, which is currently in development and expected to be released in 2022, will provide transparency on a given battery’s chemistry and identity, and measure its sustainability and environmental impact.

Using the Passport, people purchasing EVs in future will be able to ascertain that the batteries in their EVs are sourced to the highest social and environmental standards.

The Passport will also help resource efficiency, life extension, second use and stronger battery recycling by amalgamating important information about the battery ranging from its chemical make-up to its usage and the way it was manufactured, and tracing it across its entire lifecycle.

This heeds a prescient call from researchers at the University of Birmingham who underlined the urgent need to track a battery “from digging the materials out of the ground to disposing of them again at the end.”

Poised to bring down required transport and power sector emissions by 30% by 2030, according to research by the GBA, batteries offer a compelling economic and environmental value proposition.

Stronger recycling and innovative technologies can help sustainably integrate batteries into the circular economy, preventing waste issues and minimising unintended environmental risks.

View the original article here: Circular.