The convenient truth about lithium-ion recycling you should know about

Last month there have been several articles about the disastrous low rates of recycling for lithium-ion batteries (here, here, here and here). A few of them have been based on new research reports claiming that only 2-5 per cent of the batteries are recycled and that most of the waste is sent to landfill.

Those who read our research or follow me here on Linkedin or Twitter knows that this is just not true.

Lithium-on batteries from both Europe and North America are widely recycled. They are just not recycled locally but in Asia. Today we added our 25th company to our list of Chinese recyclers, increasing the total capacity with 10,000 tonnes. That’s almost as much as the entire available capacity in Europe – which is not fully utilised.

Most of these batteries come from portable devices such as laptops and smartphones. The EV batteries is another story where most of them are successfully used in second life applications and are thus not available for recycling. While this still by many “experts” is regarded as evaluation and research projects it’s actually a fast growing industry with only one big bottleneck – lack of batteries. When more batteries from buses and cars reach end-of-life (which however takes longer time than anyone thought) this industry will take off fast.

End-of-life treatment of lithium-ion batteries is in fact on its way to become a tremendous success, much more circular than any other battery chemistry including lead-acid, nickel cadmium or alkaline.

I have been thinking a lot about why we at Circular Energy Storage, still are essentially alone in making this analysis. Why do researchers, funded by governments and large corporations (we fund our research entirely ourselves) both in Europe and North America insist to convey this self-punishing image, that a wasteful western world is throwing toxic waste in landfills or that batteries that only hours ago could power a car is not good for anything but trash because everything else is too costly. When it's not true.

One reason is certainly a strong interest from other industries to make sure this image remains. Car companies that hasn’t seriously jumped on the EV band wagon are many times keen to remind us about the challenges we face with lithium-ion batteries. So is the lead-acid battery industry which doesn’t miss an opportunity to share its veritable success in recycling. Even other new alternative industries such as fuel cell and flow battery developers can curb their enthusiasm for lithium-ion.

Among researchers who want to fund new research projects an introduction that ends with “however, so far only 3 per cent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled, which is causing serious risks for health and environment” is obviously a bit more catchy than “processes like these do already exist in large scale primarily in China and South Korea”.

Of course it can also be sheer lack of experience from the recycling industry or inability to find other sources than previous academic research.

But what’s the real problem here?

First of all there is a serious risk that our research money isn’t allocated where it's needed.

Secondly, companies in Europe and North America are not making the right investment decisions because they don’t understand how circular the lithium-ion value chain has become. It’s like watching a frozen TV screen while the movie is still on, seen by other parts of the world who soon know how it ends.

The current pace of the Asian battery industry is nothing but extraordinary. The recycling and second life segments are not far behind and are tightly connected to the overall industry. There is really no time for rest.

We are trying to do what we can to inform. We are generous in sharing our findings with media to get the word out. I encourage anyone who’s interested to follow me here on Linkedin or on Twitter where I share findings from our research on a daily basis. But of course, companies in any part of the lithium-ion supply chain we do encourage to buy our research and get the full picture and a solid understanding of how the end-of-life market really works, how the current landscape looks like and what to expect in the future.

Hans Eric Melin