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EV battery circular economy — the road to a sustainable EV industry

Auto Recycling World talked to Zheng Mingyang – Detox Campaigner from Greenpeace East Asia about the research the organisation is doing concerning EV battery circular economy and what he would like to see from the cooperation among government, car & battery manufacturers and recyclers to reuse and recycle retired batteries more efficiently.

 

EV battery circular economy -- the road to a sustainable EV industry feat four
Zheng Mingyang

Could you provide a brief outline of your background and your role with Greenpeace in China?

I’ve been working on the promotion of the circular economy in the EV industry and ICT industry in Greenpeace East Asia for more than 2 years.  This year, I am focusing on the research of retired electric vehicle batteries. We want to promote the circular economy of the whole production process of EV batteries and call for a more sustainable battery and car industry.

Why is it that Greenpeace researched the recycling of EV batteries? Is it to encourage the uptake in EVs and promote the perceived advantages they produce? Or is it that there may be un-encountered problems with potential material supply?

It is known that many countries are promoting the use of electric vehicles to deal with the climate crisis. What Greenpeace focuses on are the sustainability of the raw material supply chain and the environmental effects of the battery production process.

EV batteries need materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel which are mainly produced in the Congo, Australia and Chile. However, most of the EV batteries are produced from China, Japan and South Korea, which means these countries are relying on importing raw material from the countries of origin. In the long term, with the rapidly growing demand for EV batteries, the battery production countries will face higher risks on raw material supply.

The report from GPEA estimates that the cumulative content of the four metals, lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese in EV batteries from passenger cars sold worldwide from 2021 to 2030 is about 10.35 million tonnes. The cumulative use of cobalt is expected to exceed 2.05 million tonnes, equivalent to 30% of the proven mineable cobalt mine in the world. Therefore we need to find a way to recycle and reuse retired batteries.

Could you provide an overview of the approach to EV and EV battery recycling in China and how it differs to the rest of the world? Also, do you think that China understands the importance of recycling and the repurposing of EV batteries and are policies and systems being put in place?

In 2017 China published Extended Producer Responsibility regulation, in which establishing an EV battery tracking platform was set as a target. Car manufacturers, battery manufacturers and reusing companies were asked to register on this platform.

Over the past three years, hundreds of companies have registered in this system, while there are still many companies outside the platform, thus only a part of retired batteries can be monitored through it. Generally, the Chinese government considers battery recycling as an important issue. It’s also updating the regulations regarding battery recycling and repurposing. However, the life cycle monitoring of EV batteries has not been achieved and still needs some time.

In Europe, in the next ten years, the EV industry will develop very fast. So I think it’s crucial to strengthen the influence of the PRO (Producer responsibility organisation) and include more producers in the organisation to take the responsibility of monitoring and recycling batteries.

From the report, what are the most concerning issues you have found?

Repurposing retired EV batteries could not only create economic benefits but also contribute to a low carbon society. In the report, we have found that:

  1. Assuming that an EV battery’s lifespan is 5-8 years and the retired batteries still retain 80% usable energy capacity. Between 2021 and 2030, the total weight of retired batteries in the world will reach 12.85 million tonnes, which is comparable to the weight of 1285 Eiffel Towers.
  2. Repurposed EV batteries could cover all global demand for energy storage in 2030 – about 368 GWh of capacity.

If we can reuse and repurpose these retired batteries from passenger cars globally, the consumption of materials such as cobalt and lithium will be decreased. Thus, the supply risk of these materials will be lower for the battery production countries. More than that, by 2030, repurposed EV batteries can satisfy the entire world’s demand for energy storage, preventing 63.34 million tonnes of carbon emission associated with new battery manufacture.

In its conclusion, the report states, the government should ensure 100% tracking and collection of retired EV batteries and incentivise using recycled materials to produce batteries. How do you think this can be achieved?

To achieve this goal, the government should strengthen extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulation in the policies. Car and battery manufacturers should not only take the responsibility of recycling the batteries but also cooperate with the repurposing companies and provide guidance for them to make the reusing process easier. And for the repurposing and recycling companies, if they sell repurposed batteries, they are also the producer, so they should take the responsibility of the life cycle of repurposed batteries.

The government should also set a target for the battery producers on using a proportion of recycled materials in their new batteries and work toward a 100% recycled material product in the future. To achieve this target, the government may impose taxes on the use of raw materials and give incentives to the companies that use recycled materials.

As the volume of EV vehicles rises, plus the opportunity to recycle EV batteries increases, what role do you see vehicle recyclers playing? If you wish to encourage a 100% tracking system, I can imagine it could be quite influential. However, other reports suggest that auto recyclers are ill-prepared to deal with the potential influx of EV vehicles, and there has been little communication between them and manufacturers when it comes to discussing their respective roles.

As far as I know, many consumers are still driving their EVs even if the batteries are after the warranty period because of the high price of battery replacement. In this case, many batteries are retired together with the cars. The vehicle recyclers could sell the retired batteries to the legal companies that have the ability to repurpose the batteries or recycle the critical materials safely and more environmentally friendly. Moreover, some EV recyclers have their own recycling systems. In this way, data sharing from the battery manufacturers on the dispatching methods and the state of health of the batteries will be helpful for EV recyclers.

Referring to Europe and traditional vehicles, a large percentage of ELV vehicles are unaccounted for every year. Taking into consideration the potential high value of an EV battery, how can the wish for a complete tracking system be created and maintained for such a desirable commodity which could potentially vanish across borders to the highest bidder?

  1. Establishing globally recognised technical standards can improve the efficiency of the battery reusing & repurposing industry. Through the promotion of international discussion and cooperation on retired EV battery repurposing, more effective business models can be generated.
  1. Quality assurance is very important for repurposed batteries. Besides, questions like how to define a retired battery, how the batteries can be used in the best way for the right application and how they can be dispatched and detected efficiently by recyclers should be discussed among the government, the manufacturers and the recyclers.

If you would like to contact Zheng, please email him at mzheng@greenpeace.org, alternatively, please visit www.greenpeace.org.cn/ev-battery-report-20201029

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