The 5% rate and other untruths about battery recycling.

The 5% rate and other untruths about battery recycling.

In a LinkedIn article, Hans Eric Melin, Managing Director of Circular Energy Storage Research and Consulting, addressed a 'well documented fact' about battery recycling: only 5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled; 95% of batteries go to landfill.

Other claims about batteries from their energy intensive production and associated CO2 footprint and child labour used in mining for cobalt combine to form the "dirty secret" of EVs.

However, as Hans explains, that 'well documented fact' about battery recycling is far from correct. And he should know. He has been following the battery recycling market for 15 years on a daily basis.

Hans believes that recycling rates are actually closer to 90% or even higher.

He makes three arguments.

  • Value: quite simply there are too many valuable materials in batteries for them to be allowed to go to waste by scrap companies and metal processors. For example cobalt trading at close to US$29,000 per tonne.
  • Legislation: industrial batteries (including EV batteries) are banned from landfill in Europe and the US, classified as universal waste, which means that they must be handed over to a processor of hazardous waste.
  • Still being used: most batteries are not available for recycling because they are exported for reuse. When they eventually reach end of life it will not be in the markets where they originally were sold. Hence it's impossible to get to a 100% collection rate based on 'placed/put on the market'.

Hans provides an excellent discussion of how the myths about battery recycling (and other aspects of batteries) have emerged.

On the one hand, the context may have been missing. A press release in 2011 from the European Battery Recycling Association (EBRA), and abstracted in a 2016 Friends of the Earth report seems to Hans to be the origin of the '5% recycling rate' number. However actually the number is the average number of batteries collected by EBRA members and affiliates in 2010 as a percentage of batteries placed on the market in the previous three years. There is no information about whether other batteries had been recycled or not.

On the other hand there has simply been some questionable or outdated research has simply been repeated without fact checking. For example, the landfill 'fact' seems to originate from a 2016 research paper ("Current and Prospective Li-ion Battery Recycling and Recovery Processes" by Heelan et al) which says that 95% of lithium-ion batteries go to landfill in the abstract, but as Hans points out cannot be found in the actual paper itself!

Those 'facts' can then get repeated to further agendas both the anti-electrification camp and the pro-electrification camp. After all it is great in a pitch deck to show that 'current' recycling is poor and hence a great opportunity for growth!

(Final step in lithium carbonate recovery process at Chinese recycler in 2023; photo by Hans Eric Melin

We found this interesting for a number of reasons.

Firstly, with regards batteries themselves, an often quoted issue with the move to electrification, of transportation in particular, is that we are going to need a lot more minerals and these will be damaging to the environment. However, the material recovery from battery recycling reducing the need for virgin materials.

Secondly, in doing research for our articles at The Sustainable Investor the biggest frustration we find is in fact checking we often find references that hit dead ends, but then those numbers are quoted and repeated as given facts. Or indeed the simplification of often complex issues into sound bites then propagates misunderstanding.

We discussed that concept in a Sunday Brunch last year 👉🏾

This article featured in What Caught Our Eye, a weekly email featuring stories we found particularly interesting during the week and why. We also give our lateral thought on each one. What Caught our Eye is available to read in full by members.

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