This story was originally published by Undark Magazine and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In September, Tesla announced that it would be phasing out the use of cobalt in its batteries, in an effort to produce a US$25,000 electric vehicle within three years. If successful, this bold move will be an industry game changer, making electric vehicles competitive with conventional counterparts. But the announcement also underscores one of the fundamental challenges that will complicate the transition to electric vehicles. Without cobalt, there may be little financial incentive to recycle the massive batteries used to power the cars — and that could lead to an environmental disaster.

The switch to electric vehicles has been promoted as a major, necessary step to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stave off the worst effects of a changing climate. The switch would also significantly reduce health risks associated with vehicle emissions. Every major auto manufacturer now has at least one electric vehicle in production, and some — including Daimler, Volkswagen, and General Motors — have pledged to phase out the production of gas and diesel engines entirely. More than a dozen countries, including many in Europe, have said they plan to ban sales of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040 or sooner. California also just announced a plan to phase out gas and diesel cars by 2035.

But electric cars have their own dirty little secret: Every electric vehicle, and most hybrid vehicles, rely on large lithium-ion batteries weighing hundreds of pounds. One of the largest, the battery for the Mercedes-Benz EQC, comes in at 1,400 pounds. Typically made with cobalt, nickel, and manganese, among other components, these batteries cost thousands of dollars and come with an environmental burden: They require ingredients sourced from polluting mines and smelters around the world, and they can ultimately contaminate soil and water supplies if improperly disposed.

In the rush to embrace this technology, auto companies are adopting the same pretence that has been embraced by the plastics industry: They are claiming that used batteries will be recycled. However, the truth is being swept under the rug. None of the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles are recyclable in the same sense that paper, glass, and lead car batteries are. Although efforts to improve recycling methods are underway, generally only around half the materials in these batteries is currently extracted and repurposed. And without the most valuable ingredients, there will be little economic incentive to invest in recycling technologies. The result, if nothing is done to tip the scales, could be a massive health and environmental crisis.

Despite ongoing research into recycling technology, this situation is unlikely to resolve itself. Lithium-ion battery makers have yet to develop the technology that can economically extract components in a form that can be used to make new lithium-ion batteries. Rather, the batteries are typically processed to remove the cobalt and a few other expensive metals, with much of the remainder released as air emissions or used as filler in concrete or other construction products. This is one reason why less than five per cent of lithium-ion batteries are currently recycled.

Complicating matters further, different battery makers use different ingredients, cells, and modules, which makes the extraction process less efficient and more expensive. In fact, manufacturers are not even required to disclose the contents of their batteries to would-be recyclers.

To account for the inevitable growth in this waste stream, manufacturers and electric vehicle advocates are touting the potential for these batteries to be reused after their useful life in vehicles has been realized. Some companies have launched efforts to repurpose these high voltage, flammable electric vehicle batteries for solar energy storage and other backup power applications by rebuilding batteries using a combination of reused and new parts. But even if these efforts succeed in developing technologies to safely and economically remove, transport, dismantle, and remanufacture batteries, this would simply delay a battery’s ultimate fate by a few years.

The business case for recycling will become even more tenuous as Tesla and other car manufacturers take steps to lower costs by eliminating the most expensive metal components from their battery designs. Even if auto companies succeed only at reducing the concentration of these components, financial incentives will be needed to ensure that these batteries are collected and recycled. These subsidies will need to make up for the difference between the cost of transporting and processing spent batteries and the value of the extracted materials.

Without these incentives, lithium-ion batteries will be dumped, incinerated, or exported to countries with weaker standards, where they will contaminate the environment and threaten public health. Nickel has been shown to cause lung and nasal cancers, reduce lung function, and cause bronchitis. Cobalt can cause serious health conditions such as asthma and pneumonia, and it is a possible carcinogen. Exposure to manganese can result in respiratory problems, loss of coordination, and other neurological problems.

Complicating matters further, different battery makers use different ingredients, cells, and modules, which makes the extraction process less efficient and more expensive. #EVs #electriccars #batteries #recycling

We have already started shifting the burden of lithium-ion battery disposal to low- and middle-income countries, many of which lack stringent environmental safeguards and the facilities to recycle or otherwise process used batteries in an environmentally sound way. Some have even put in place incentives, including tax waivers, to encourage used electric and hybrid vehicle imports. A recent United Nations report found that hundreds of thousands of electric and hybrid vehicles are being exported annually from Japan, the E.U. and the U.S. to countries like Sri Lanka and Mauritius.

To avoid the acceleration of these trends, regulations will be needed as we shift to an electric vehicle future. Whereas China and the E.U. require electric vehicle manufacturers to take back spent batteries from consumers, no similar regulation or legislation has been adopted in the U.S. The track record in the U.S. for recycling e-waste does not offer much relief. Only three states have extended producer responsibility laws mandating that manufacturers take back lithium-ion batteries used in electronics, and none include vehicles. There are no clear prohibitions against exporting used lithium-ion batteries or selling used vehicles with degraded batteries to low-income countries at fire-sale prices.

But these are still early days, and there is still time to implement legislative solutions that can help avert an impending waste crisis. To that end, the California Environmental Protection Agency has formed a multi-stakeholder committee, of which I am a member, that will advise the state legislature on crafting practical solutions.

Today, most electric vehicles retail at the luxury end of the market, with sticker prices up to US$150,000. The federal government subsidizes these sales — as do some state governments — to help electric cars compete with conventional vehicles. But as battery prices and production costs fall, such subsides will no longer be needed. In anticipation of the expected increase in sales, we must start now to plan for a future when individual lithium-ion battery consumption transitions from the one-ounce battery in your cell phone to the behemoth in your garage.

Perry Gottesfeld is the executive director of Occupational Knowledge International and a member of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group.

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Electric cars also have a dirty big problem - their size. Cars became bloated before we cared about conservation to make each sale mostly about status, not practical value. There is no good excuse for a land vehicle to weigh more than it carries.

This article is very disappointing. It sounds like oil industry talking points. It has many factual mistakes including the overall theme that EV batteries are either not being recycled or are not recyclable. The problem with lithium-ion battery recycling is in the consumer device space (phones, computers) where there is little standardization which makes it harder to recycle. For EVs there are many projects underway to recycle EV batteries and the materials in those batteries are well worth recycling whether they include cobalt or not. The biggest problem with EV battery recycling at the moment is a lack of batteries to recycle because the vast majority of EV batteries produced to date are either still in the original vehicle or are being used in a secondary application.

Interesting. I've long found it ironic that industries that gave us plastic, synthetic fertilizers and long term climate change are suddenly concerned about the emissions of producing solar panels....or the problem with recycling ev's funny about the impetus to become concerned with pollution in a capitalist economy dependent on it, yes?

Still..........I hope we're thinking about recycling.......and creating a circular economy with much less waste.........and cradle to cradle infrastructure. It's what we need, going forward.

This is just an opinion piece and apparently not based on current research.  The mineral recovery rates are actually quite high.
And the company Gary refers to is working hard at it:
(Reuters) - Tesla co-founder J.B. Straubel wants to build his startup Redwood Materials into the world's top battery recycling company and one of the largest battery materials companies, he said at a technology conference Wednesday. Straubel aims to leverage two partnerships, one with Panasonic.

Although not addressing recycling of existing batteries, here's a recent forward looking article out of Halifax, the centre for Tesla battery innovation thanks to Jeff Dahn from Dalhousie University:

If you are one of the very, very, very few people to have an eVehicle old enough to have batteries that need recycling - hey, just ask for the batteries back when you sell the carcass for scrap. They can sit beside your new car in the garage for another 15 years. After all, the storage of old stuff is less space-consuming than the actual new thing that had to be manufactured to make it. There's lots of spare space where cars are already stored.

If you're thinking of getting a new eVehicle in the next few years, and won't be doing any recycling before about 2035-2040, then you wasted your time reading this; the whole situation will be different when battery recycling is a 100-billion $/yr business.

Sorry, 10-billion $/yr business. The USA has around 100 million cars, recycling 5%/year is 5 million /year, a thousand or so each for the battery recycling(?) ish... And at least as many cars again around the world.

Batteries are just coming into the big stream, the perfect time to make regulations that would remedy most if not all the problems cited here. It’s not like looking back at a century-old, entrenched energy paradigm of head-off competitive innovations and patents, and a huge integrated infrastructure which, initially, grew in an ad hoc, natural selection-like evolution, proceeded to monopoly, got combines-trimmed by government, then organized more gamed and insidious social engineering committing public budgets to the benefit of increasingly powerful, intransigently conservative stakeholders. The attendant extirpation or extermination of electric-powered civic transit, freight-rail branch lines, and open-hold shipping created the illusion of efficiency while indelibly entrenching the rubber-tire/petroleum-fuelled, just-in-time, all-components-everywhere-all-the-time container shipping, intensely personalized automobile ‘rights’ where individual drivers guard their conveniences with all the rage of a sow grizzly does her cubs. Oh, yes!—and airline travel so frequent, the population of a fair sized city is in the air at any given moment, 24/7.

Good news is: much of this infrastructure can be used much as it is while automobile traffic—the biggest nut to crack in air pollution terms—transitions from fossil fuels to EVs. Fortunately, because private cartels deftly saddled the public with much of infrastructure costs, citizens already own roads, bridges and their private vehicles, a powerful pole position as we ready to implement the new way.

The points raised in the article are a bit trite. For example, actual and potential used car-battery pollution, even today’s little internal-combustion starter batteries, much less the much larger EV ones, do not compare with plastics pollution, not in volume, not in ubiquity, and not in environmental impact—not even when EV batteries become more common. Car batteries go into and out of cars much more discretely than plastics which go into and come out of almost everything—including cars and car batteries. A walk along the ocean beach will encounter few batteries, but tons of plastics in bits as small as molecules up to the size of cars.

Likewise, the characterization of mines and smelting as always polluting is as trite as the threat of nickel-caused diseases. Maybe we shoulda got rid of the hazardous five-cent piece instead of the healthy copper penny—you know: for the sake of nature, human health, and everything that’s holy.

But even if it’s a compromise balance thing, the pollution potential of EV batteries is minuscule compared to the damage done by two centuries of coal and petroleum burning —and the next 30 years or so of wind-down from the era of heady, gas-guzzling benders. I mean, the article sounds a lot like petro-industry defence which is effectively conceding its dilemma by telling condescending, battery-bogeyman stories.

The response is fairly straightforward (surely the conservative position has a rejoinder for every conceivable aspect of transition): we direct our governments to enact the kind of regulations and standards that address legitimate EV battery concerns. And we do it before, in anticipation of, potential problems—that is, with the benefit of hindsight, we avoid future problems.

It’s a lot harder to disperse EV battery pollutants than combusted petroleum exhaust, the ease of dilution as a solution to smoke pollution is what makes international coordination so difficult, as essential as it is. It’s a lot easier to capture, sequester, or recycle EV batteries or any of their components than it is to bag smoke already on the loose. The matter of shipping used EV batteries offshore to low-or-no enviro regulation jurisdictions is thus easier to deal with: just make it illegal to come from our jurisdiction, and retaliate economically against nations which do pollute—we can even pick the exact type. Nobody in a crowded elevator can really know who farted, but if anybody were to defecate on the floor, everybody would know who it was and the matter of punishment would be an open and shut case. Such is the difference between regulating the battery stream and the air pollution stream.

Again, at the beginning of the new paradigm, these solutions are easier to get approval and budgets for than, say, carbon sequestration technology (which is really a fantastic sop to concerned citizens so petro-polluters can stay in business).

Finally, Covid has popped a lot of neoliberal canards with respect government participation in the economy. It’s people who need protecting, not huge multinational finance and industry. From this nadir we can build back with more accepted government involvement —including making rules that ameliorate virtually all the concerns about EV batteries raised here. Here, in the blocks at the new starting line is the perfect place and time to simply not give mega-polluters’ foot-dragging any more credence, but to let them transition along with us on the Covid-levelled field.

The latest EV battery designs contain no cobalt and a lot less lithium. Some contain none.

Also watch the Tesla batter day presentation. The Tesla team are opening their end to end recycling for their vehicles because- it makes economic sense.

There are also a number of startups on this already. This one from a co-founder of Tesla.

I do find it amusing that we go through cell phones and laptops like they are Smarties and now the bandwagon is on this.

I ask the critics,"what is your idea ?"