Each year, Americans throw away more than 3 billion batteries constituting 180,000 tons of hazardous material. The situation is likely to get worse as the world shifts to lithium batteries to power a massive influx of electric vehicles. It needs immediate attention.
Everyday-green.com reported more than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries are thrown away yearly. They power electronic toys and games, portable audio equipment and flashlights, and make up 20% of the household hazardous materials in our garbage dumps.
Unlike composted waste, trashed batteries contaminate our environment, particularly our drinking water. Even though the harmful materials are tightly encased, the casing is often crushed in landfills. The spent batteries contain toxic acids and recoverable metals, such as mercury, nickel, cadmium, cobalt, lead, and zinc.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 99% of rechargeable lead-acid batteries from vehicles with gas and diesel engines are recycled. They are the No. 1 recycled consumer product in America.
Worn-out lead-acid batteries are sent to recycling operations such as Teck’s processing facility in Trail, British Columbia. It recycles over 32,500 tons of lead car batteries and 500 tons of zinc alkaline batteries every year.
Landfilled lithium EV batteries are fire hazards. When stored improperly, they can overheat and ignite. Those fires can burn for weeks spewing toxic smoke. The crux of the matter is less than 5% of lithium batteries are recycled, and the problem is growing.
There were 10.5 million EVs sold last year. That number is expected to rise to 27 million in 2026 and more than 70 million in 2040. “That means the world will be seeing tens of millions of tons of (lithium battery) cells being junked every year starting in the mid-2030s,” Bloomberg’s David Fickling wrote last June.
The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140 million EVs globally by 2030, leaving behind 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling. That is staggering considering last year only 5% of the European Union’s electric car batteries were recycled.
The good news is automakers are looking for ways to extend the life of lithium batteries. Reprocessing spent batteries is getting more attention as manufacturers increase demand for metals, which are already in short supply.
One approach is converting car batteries for household use. The Guardian reports Aceleron, a hi-tech British startup, plans to take electric car batteries which still have 70% of their capacity and repackage them for growing home energy storage.
RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc., a Surrey, British Columbia, company, has patented a process which recovers lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and aluminum from lithium-ion batteries. Its leaching methods recover 99% of metals and processing chemicals as opposed to smelting where substantial amounts of lithium are destroyed.
Innovative technology is of particular interest to our nation, which imports three-fourths of its cobalt, half of its lithium, and all of its manganese. China is the predominant metals supplier and has been stockpiling those critical metals.
To meet the demand for electric vehicles and energy storage batteries by 2035, at least 384 new average size mines for graphite, lithium, nickel, and cobalt are required, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence reported in 2022. Considering recycling of raw materials, the number drops to 336 mines.
The predicament is already Herculean, in scope. “Decisions taken now will be crucial to whether that mass of lithium, graphite and base metals turns into an environmental crisis, or a model of efficient recycling,” Fickling pinpointed. He is spot-on.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business. He now lives in Vancouver, Washington, and can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.
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