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Some Inconvenient Truths About Recycling EV Batteries

October 19, 2021

As of today, electric vehicles (EVs) account for less than two percent of the 17 million new cars sold annually in the USA. If you’re doing the math, that’s somewhere south of 340,000 cars, or less than one in every 250.

But how can this be?

Per the government, EVs are clearly superior to cars with internal combustion engines (ICEs) if you discount such small-minded concerns as charging time, miles of range, the availability of charging stations, and their higher Monroney sticker

According to Earth911, an Arizona-based eco-advocacy website. “…if you don’t mind charging a car between 4 to15 hours and you rarely go over 300 miles a day, EVs might just be the perfect fit for you.” 

No argument there. 

But apparently 98+ percent of American adults are failing to drink the Kool-Aid. And so, per the NCSL, as of July 2021, at least 47 states and DC were offering enticements for you to step up to a shiny new EV. We’re talking rebates and tax incentives here.

But wait. There’s more! 

The House Ways and Means Committee last month advanced a Democrat proposal to boost the tax credit for buying a new EV to $12,500 —if that EV is built by a UAW shop. Domestic EVs made at non-union shops (e.g. Toyota, Honda, and Tesla) would only be eligible for $7,500. 

A skeptic might say the $5,000 differential is a sop to the UAW and has nothing to do with saving the planet and everything to do with politics & pork. But you’re not a skeptic. Correct? 

Anyway, given these enticements and the anti-ICE regulatory agenda, annual sales of EVs are expected to reach 1.4 million by 2025; so over 18 million EVs will be roaming about our highways & byways in dire search of a voltage fix; and range anxiety might replace obesity as the lifestyle disease of the midcentury. 

But what about all those EV batteries when they’re permanently dead?

That’s not a question you’re supposed to ask. But since we’re in the business of hazardous waste management, we’re inclined to pose it anyway. Consider…

Along with the prickly fact that producing EV batteries requires a lot of yucky gasoline & oil,  there’s a second pachyderm in the room. i.e., when an EV battery arrives at the inevitable end of its useful life, its “green” benefits are disputable

In a landfill, an EV battery will release problematic toxins, including heavy metals. And recycling one isn’t as simple as throwing that empty La Croix can into the blue bin instead of the tan one. 

The individual cells of these batteries are bonded to one another with strong glues that make them difficult to separate. Cut too deeply into an individual cell and it can quickly become a bad actor: combusting, exploding, releasing toxic gases, and otherwise becoming very eco-naughty.

Adding to the problem: EV batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction. So each will require its own recycling protocol, making it difficult to create efficient recycling systems. 

Types of EV batteries used in EVs

There are basically four kinds of “energy storage systems” used in EV’s.

  • Lithium-Ion batteries (Li-ion) are ubiquitous in portable electronics (e.g. cell phones and laptops). Most EVs use them, although the chemical composition is different from what’s inside your iPhone. Although relatively expensive, they pack a lot of energy for their size & weight, with comparatively good high-temperature performance, and have a low self-discharge rate (meaning they don’t go dead while sitting around doing nothing). Most Li-ion components are recyclable, but as noted, the recovery cost can be a deal-killer. 
  • Nickel-metal hydride batteries (NiMH) are typically found in computer and medical equipment. Automotive versions are used to provide electricity for hybrid vehicles in lieu of the lead-acid kind, mostly because they have a longer life cycle and can take more abuse. Unfortunately, NiMH batteries are expensive, prone to self-discharge, and generate a lot of heat.
  • Lead-acid batteries are what we’re accustomed to finding beneath the hoods of our cars (or in the trunk or under the seat, depending on your ride). They’re inexpensive, safe, reliable, and can be designed for high power. However, a low power-to-weight ratio, poor cold-temperature performance, and short charging-cycle curtail their use for motivating a car forward (i.e. traction). So they’re typically relegated to powering electrical components specific to ICEs, such as the starter motor. 
  • Ultracapacitors are neither cells nor batteries. They store energy in a polarized liquid between an electrode and an electrolyte—but only for a short time. Thus, they can’t be the main power source in a vehicle. Instead, they’re used as secondary energy-sources, providing EVs with a surge of additional current to accelerate or go uphill. They’re also useful in regenerative technologies, e.g. harvesting braking energy.

Battery recycling methods

There are two or three recycling methods for batteries depending on how you count. Two are polar opposites and the third is a compromise between the two.

  1. Smelting is an eco-embarrassment for being energy-intensive. It uses high temperatures to recover basic elements from Li-ion and NiMH batteries. Organic materials are burned off, leaving valuable metals for later refining. Any other materials (e.g. lithium) are contained in the remaining “slag,” which can be used as an additive in other products (e.g. concrete).
  2. Direct recovery is a low-temperature process with less-prodigious energy requirements but labor-intense. Batteries of one or another kind are disassembled into thousands of cells, which are then treated with supercritical CO2, an industrial solvent, to extract the electrolytes. The cells are then disassembled, broken, and sorted in order to collect reusable materials.
  3. Intermediate processes might accept multiple kinds of batteries at the same time and use both direct recovery and smelting methods at different operational points to collect valuable recyclables.

Never mind science. Follow the politics. 

EVs will rapidly displace ICE automobiles in the coming years, and a tsunami of spent EV batteries will be an environmental reality. These batteries are energy- or labor intense to deconstruct and differ widely in their chemistry and construction. 

Thus, each will require its own recycling protocol.

This will make creating efficient recycling systems difficult, engendering economic disincentives that will make it more expensive to use recycled EV-battery materials than to buy freshly mined or newly manufactured ones.

This means that spent EV batteries will require hazardous waste transportation, treatment, and disposal.

In sum, spent batteries from EVs are definitely in your future. And if your business owns significant numbers of cars & trucks, that future contains a significant hazardous waste management problem.

When that time comes, remember there’s a hazardous waste solution to that hazardous waste problem right here. Or call 888.681.8923

And thank you for reading our blog!

Disposal of hazardous waste doesn’t have to be painful.