Lithium-ion recycling – why numbers matter

Last week I gave a talk at the Batteries Event in Nice about recycling and reuse of lithium-ion batteries. Selected slides can be viewed below.

The message: Lithium-ion batteries have a much higher recycling rate than what normally is reported. A volume equivalent to half of all batteries that this year will reach end-of-life will be recycled. The batteries, of which more than 80% are portable, are primarily recycled in Asia by companies that use them to produce new battery materials.

And, the main reason why EV batteries aren’t recycled is that they last longer than expected and are used either as replacement batteries or in second life solutions after their first use. When they finally are available for recycling they will be sent to the recyclers that pay most for the material.

Extremely few lithium-ion batteries are sent to landfill and except for occasional fires caused by batteries in solid waste facilities there would in fact be no proof at all that lithium-ion batteries would ever be landfilled.

These talks of mine, like the one in Nice, hopefully leave at least a few people fascinated of how little they and everyone else knew about this. But honestly I think most people left the room with the feeling of not knowing what to think. Just like it was the first time they heard the world might not be flat or that it might be the earth that moves around the sun and not the other way around. And even this time, after my own session we were “back on track” with a speaker claiming not more than 5-7 per cent of the batteries are recycled and that the efficiencies of the world’s recycling processes are highly uncertain. At least that’s more than 2-3 per cent than what several research reports this year have been claiming. But far from our estimate of 97,000 tonnes to recycling this year.

How can we have so different views?

In our reports from Circular Energy Storage we back our claims with bottom-down research from visits and contacts with recyclers, refurbishers, second life processors and material companies around the world, but also top-down, studying how long batteries are used in their applications, which chemistries that are placed on the market and what state-of-health these batteries normally have when they reach end-of-life. This gives us a fairly accurate picture of both how much batteries that should be recycled and what actually is reaching the recyclers.

In other reports the researchers have asked collection organizations how much batteries they received and concluded that the rest is landfilled. Or they have asked the recyclers in Europe or North America how much they have processed without realising most of the batteries are exported to Asia long before they are deemed as waste or have reached domestic recycling facilities.

Similar misunderstanding is common when discussing the cost of recycling.

If you ask a collector or recycler what it will cost to recycle a battery the only thing you will understand is what it will cost you. Not what it will cost the collector or the recycler or how much they can make. Hence there are widely referred reports claiming that the cost for lithium-ion recycling is $4-$6 per kg with no reference to what chemistry it was, if it was for a pack or cells, if it was for 1 or 1000 batteries etc.

A battery material company that use recycled materials to make cathode material might have the same costs as company that only recover a few of the elements. But their revenues are much higher. That enable them to pay more for waste batteries. A company that can reuse cells and sell them with higher revenues than those that will go directly to recycling will also be able to charge less, or nothing, for disassembly of the batteries. Especially if they have to compete with other to get hold of the batteries.

If you don’t understand these basics you will always come to incorrect conclusions.

So why it’s this important? Who cares about whether lithium-ion batteries are recycled or not?

Well, besides that lack of lithium-ion battery recycling is frequently used as argument against electric vehicles it obviously makes anyone in possession of end-of-life batteries to a very bad negotiator.

If you don’t understand the cost and revenue structure of different recycling alternatives you will never know how you can improve your position. Inevitably, unless you are just lucky, you are paying too much for the disposal of of waste batteries.

However even more important is that you might miss out on the opportunities of an active approach to end-of-life management. And you might get hurt by those who don’t.

A common objection against second life I often hear is that you don’t know anything about the history of the batteries. You don’t know how they have been used, in what temperatures they have been operating or if the battery has been involved in an accident or not. That is often true. But there is really nothing in this that can’t get fixed. And several battery companies are fixing it as they see the potential of a circular use of batteries and the advantages this mean in terms of increased revenues, closer relationships with the customers and increased sales of new batteries.

Alarming reports about how bad we are might be good for recyclers to attract public funding for pilot plants. It might also soften the requirements from law makers of how much of the batteries that need to be recycled. But it is a really bad for battery and automotive companies that want to stay on top of their future markets.

Hans Eric Melin