Brunell Commentary: Battery Recycling Will Be Key To Protecting Our Planet
By Don Brunell
Americans throw away more than 3 billion batteries representing 180,000 tonnes of hazardous materials each year, and the situation is likely to worsen as the world shifts to electric vehicles.
Everyday-green.com reports that over 86,000 tonnes of single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C and D) are thrown away. They power toys and electronic games, portable audio equipment and flashlights and represent 20% of household hazardous materials in our landfills.
Unlike composted waste, batteries are dangerous and contaminate our environment, especially our drinking water. Even though the harmful materials are tightly enclosed, the casing is often crushed during landfill. Used batteries contain acids and toxic metals such as mercury, nickel, cadmium, cobalt, lead and zinc.
While it is convenient to just throw used batteries in the trash, the more expensive rechargeable types can be used up to 1000 times more than single-use types, but recharging is inconvenient and time consuming.
However, when it comes to batteries used in gasoline vehicles, lead has one of the highest recycling rates of any material, up to 99%. In fact, the closed-loop model of recycling lead-acid batteries is recognized by the World Economic Forum as a strong example of the circular economy already at work.
It helps car owners pay a fee when purchasing a traditional car battery. The money is refunded when the used battery is returned. Used batteries are sent to recycling operations. In 2019, the Teck’s Trail lead-zinc plant in British Columbia recycled more than 32,500 tonnes of lead-acid car batteries and 500 tonnes of alkaline zinc batteries.
Things are about to change dramatically as more electric vehicles populate our roads and our government and manufacturers grapple with the growing backlog of old lithium batteries for cars.
The Guardian reported that the number of electric cars in the world exceeded 2 million in 2017. The International Energy Agency estimates that there will be 140 million electric cars in the world by 2030, leaving behind they 11 million tonnes of used lithium-ion batteries to be recycled. This is a Herculean task considering that last year only 5% of electric car batteries in the European Union were recycled.
The good news is that automakers are actively looking for ways to extend the life of lithium batteries. The reprocessing of used batteries is gaining more and more attention as manufacturers increase demand for metals, especially cobalt, which are already scarce.
One approach is to convert car batteries for home use. The Guardian reports that Aceleron, a British high-tech startup, is considering taking electric car batteries that still have 70% of their capacity and repackaging them to increase home energy storage.
American Manganese, Inc. (AMY), a Surrey, British Columbia company, has patented a process that recovers lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum from cathodes used in lithium-ion batteries. AMY uses a leach and precipitation method to recover metals. Currently, the cathodes are melted and only part of the cobalt is recovered, but hardly any lithium.
The new technology is of particular interest to our nation, which imports three quarters of its cobalt, half of its lithium and all of its manganese. China is the main supplier of metals and stocks these critical metals.
China plans to put 6 million electric cars on the road by 2025 and wants to be the world’s leading manufacturer of electric cars. The Chinese have a lot of willing investors in the production of electric cars. VW, Daimler, Toyota, Ford, the Renault-Nissan alliance and GM have all announced joint ventures to produce electric vehicles in China.
Our opportunity is to find new ecologically and economically feasible ways to reprocess all used batteries and prevent them from being transported by truck to landfills.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at [email protected]