Battery Recycling Is Essential to Clean Energy

Yves here. This article makes some specific, pragmatic-seeming recommendations for battery recycling. A recent ars technica article describes longer-form why lithium, despite being an expensive material, only has 1% of lithium ion batteries recycled. A big issue is that the lithium-heavy components can’t be readily separated out. But there are other challenges too:

For the few facilities that can recover materials from lithium-ion batteries, traditional processes aren’t efficient enough to recover high-grade lithium to be used in remaking batteries. The pyrometallurgy method, for example, is easy to scale and works with any battery format, but it involves an energy-intensive process using high heat to incinerate the battery. While the ash will contain useful materials, pyrometallurgy can produce toxic fumes and limits the recovery of other valuable components. Other methods involve shredding the battery and then extracting materials using lengthy, complex chemical processes that vary depending on the battery technology used.

By Charlie Hoffs. Originally published at Common Dreams

Lithium-ion batteries are essential for decarbonizing transportation through electric vehicles and building a resilient, renewable energy grid through energy storage batteries. The grid energy storage industry represents a much smaller fraction of the lithium-ion battery market than electric vehicles, but it too has a responsibility to ensure batteries are responsibly and sustainably produced and then productively recirculated at end-of-life.

Nearly every part of a renewable energy grid can be circular, with all outputs circulating back as inputs in a regenerative cycle. The battery life cycle can work this way too, if the valuable metals in batteries are recovered and reused. However, lithium-ion battery supply chains are not yet circular. Increasing the reuse and recycling of batteries at their end of life is essential to increasing the sustainability of batteries and creating a circular economy.

Recycling Must Ramp Up

There are huge opportunities for recycling to decrease the need for newly mined materialsin batteries. By 2050, battery recycling could supply 22 to 27% of lithium, 40 to 46% of nickel, and 45 to 52% of cobalt needed for electric vehicles in the US. The US is building up the infrastructure needed to fully capture this value. Currently, the US only has about 7% of the global recycling capacity while China has 80%.

Lithium-ion batteries from consumer electronics head to the shredder in a recycling facility. (Source: Courtesy of Li-Cycle.)

The US government is also committed to bolstering domestic recycling. Since 2019, the Department of Energy’s ReCell Center has been researching effective and affordable battery recycling technology. The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law dedicated $3 billionto a battery material processing program and $3 billion for domestic battery manufacturing and recycling; $200 million to a battery design, recycling, and reuse program; $110 million for battery collection and recycling programs; $15 million on retailer battery collection programs; and $10 million for the Lithium Ion Battery Recycling Prize. Recently, a total of nearly $74 million dollars of funds was awarded for research, development, and demonstration of 10 recycling and repurposing projects. Companies leading the domestic battery recycling industry show high material recovery rates of 95-98%.

Sustainable Supply Chain Solutions Exist

In many circular systems, problems = solutions. The same goes for the energy storage battery supply chain. Governments and industry can leverage these five tactics to move energy storage batteries towards a more circular end-of-life stewardship.

1. Require producer take-back. In order to ensure batteries are recycled, it is essential to assign a party responsible. A producer take-back model requires the battery manufacturer ensures batteries are repurposed or recycled at the end of their life if they are no longer wanted by the owner. The California legislature convened a stakeholder group to develop policy to reach 100% battery recycling in the state, which included producer take-back as a topline recommendation, mirroring the policy of the European Union Battery Directive.

2. Support safe, efficient, and cost-effective battery transportation. Because batteries can be hazardous if improperly handled, transporting them involves additional regulations and can constitute 40 to 60% of battery recycling costs. Governments can fund battery transportation safety research and worker training programs and can facilitate safe and efficient handling by encouraging manufacturers to clearly display battery components, chemical compositions, and health status. Regulators can also enact new waste categories specifically for batteries, which can make transporting used batteries to reuse or recycling centers safer and more cost-effective.

3. Encourage battery manufacturers to design for disassembly. The government can urge battery makers to employ design standards that facilitate disassembly, quality testing at end-of-life, and repurposing. This could accelerate the reuse of used electric vehicle batteries in grid energy storage. More than 200 gigawatt-hours of used electric vehicle batteries will be available for energy storage reuse by 2030, which would satisfy projected grid storage battery demand.

4. Increase access to information. The US can further spur battery reuse and recycling by encouraging companies to display information clearly on all used batteries, including the type of chemistry and the results of quality tests on the battery’s health and remaining capacity.

5. Invest in domestic battery recycling research and infrastructure. The US can continue to provide funding for research labs and companies developing and scaling domestic recycling. Additional funding for lithium-ion battery recycling research and projects can also help ensure that the emerging industry continues to meet and exceed standards for worker safety and environmental sustainability.

Effective policy, industry commitment, and public awareness can help address the issues of raw materials and manufacturing challenges alongside the battery waste issue. The secret? Unlocking battery reuse and recycling.

Fleets of batteries—acres and acres of unassuming stationary metal boxes—are a key to unlocking the renewable energy future. But are batteries, themselves, renewable? Can they be reused or recycled at the end of their life? Where do their raw materials come from, and how can we ensure their valuable contents are recovered rather than wasted?

And what about the solar panels and wind turbines, which generate the electricity that batteries store? Check out our previous posts on solar panel and wind turbine lifecycles!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. diptherio

    A good friend is a senior research scientist at a battery startup. After over a decade in the field, her view is that the current best battery design for sustainability and all-round efficiency is…lead acid.

    1. Louis Fyne

      EV car owners (or the car makers, one in the same) should have to pay a recycling deposit on their batteries—just like with lead acid batteries or Michigan soda pop bottles.

      You get the money back if the battery gets recycled, if not, the money goes to properly dispose the batteries.

      Paging AOC and/or Greta. Not holding my breath.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        The maximum range of early electric vehicles was around 100 miles. Of course they ran with power stored in early batteries — lead acid batteries of course. “Manhattan successfully operated a fleet of electric cabs in 1900, with a central station that rapidly swapped depleted batteries with a fresh tray.” And from a footnote from that same source: “Ironically, about 100 miles is still the maximum range for modern electric cars: technological improvements in battery storage and electric motors have been perfectly offset by an increase in car size and weight…” [p. 207, “How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm”, Lewis Dartnell, 2014]

        1. Odysseus

          “Ironically, about 100 miles is still the maximum range for modern electric cars: technological improvements in battery storage and electric motors have been perfectly offset by an increase in car size and weight…”

          There has indeed been an increase in size and weight, but that’s not the limitation. 90% of all automobile trips are under 20 miles. There are great efficiency gains with small batteries, so there is no need to make them larger.

          We do have the capability to make prototypes with huge battery capacities, but it would be incredibly wasteful to put them into mass production.

          We test an electric Mercedes that can go 747 miles on a single charge

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I think it is important to keep aware of the two kinds of rechargeable lead acid battery available — regular car batteries for starting cars and the deep-cycle lead acid batteries designed discharge at a much slower rate — almost drained of power and recharged without problems. Regular car batteries are designed to briefly deliver the high current needed to run the electric motor for starting a car. They can be damaged if discharged below ~5% and recharged too many times. [p. 47, “How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm”, Lewis Dartnell, 2014]

      1. Henry Moon Pie

        Very true. We used deep cycle Exide batteries with a Tripp-Lite inverter on the PV system we set up on the adobe we built in the Sangre de Cristos in the 80s. Back then, we got a 65% tax rebate, forty from the feds and 25 from New Mexico. And back then, I actually needed a tax rebate. ;)

  2. Paul Whittaker

    another day another Tesla auto pilot crash involving 6 other vehicles, all drivers treated for minor injuries. Another poke at the battery issue, we are a throw away society so it goes. winter driving means around 30% fewer miles between charging. I my youth I lived close to Bradfords bakery in Birmingham in the UK. they used a fleet of electric delivery vehicles (lead acid of course) dropping off door to door bread, as did the milk man, door to door. moving from the 50-60s to the 2000’s the milk man carried a variety of other products butter etc door to door in Marston Green where my brother lived. So far have we come and we call it “progress”.

  3. Spork

    Discarded batteries keep causing fires in our city’s gargantuan scrap metal facility. The fires cause piles of shredded vehicle interiors to ignite, and the resultant clouds of toxic smoke to drift over residential areas. People with lungs must flee the area until it clears. The scrap company blames battery manufactures and apparently is pushing for battery buy-back legislation with our local congress critter.

    As for the recycling part. We also have a trash incinerator nearby and so I happen to know a little about the global anti-trash incineration community. Battery recycling facilities seem to be considered just as bad for air quality as burning trash – probably worse. So if the solution is to burn up the battery in order to extract the useful materials (lithium) then I would say engineers need to keep trying…. Incineration is a stupid thing to include in a “circular” economy.

  4. Rod

    Good layout of the practical matters for baseline progress for batteries.
    Or really most all that is Manufactured.
    Just applying 1. Require producer take-back. across the board of all manufacturing would profoundly change both our Input and Output streams for the better, imo.

    1. Sue inSoCal

      Yes! Producer take back! For all lithium ion batteries. I wonder how many people have piles of dead lithium ion devices and thingies apart from “just phones” that turn into landfill? That said, I don’t know if I trust that these companies won’t just pitch the stuff out anyhow. I’m using an age old Apple with an external battery until it gives up. (Then, dunno. Burner?)

  5. Skip Intro

    I have to quibble with the contention in the opening paragraph that Li batteries are essential for grid storage. That is exactly the wrong place for Li batteries to be used. Their current use is an aberration of marketing. Fixed installations weigh in on the opposite end of the weight/flammability plot.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      It is a travesty to waste Li batteries for Grid storage. Li batteries offer some advantages to handheld and portable electronic devices offset by their much greater aggregate costs compared with other battery technologies. Li batteries offer few to no advantages for Grid storage, except perhaps in case some traveling circus needs to move an electric Grid around to power their Klieg lights.

  6. Tom Pfotzer

    Glad to see this article, and the emphasis put on materials recover, especially:

    3. Encourage battery manufacturers to design for disassembly. The government can urge battery makers to employ design standards that facilitate disassembly, quality testing at end-of-life, and repurposing.

    I’m gradually cranking up the pressure on the mfg’s I buy from. I learned this from my wife, who frequently writes to manufacturers telling them why she does/doesn’t buy from them. They listen way more than I expected. They send her gifts, thanking her for her feedback.

    I’m going to wind into dialog like this: “I would have bought your product, but nobody can recover the materials you used”, or “it looks really hard to repair, and I’m not spending any more money on tools / appliances that I can’t fix”.

    ==== separately …

    The pictures in the article don’t do justice to this point, but materials recovery is likely to be a labor-intensive activity. That’s _good_; we’d be substituting labor (wages) for raw materials extraction (high-capital, concentrated, oligarch-feeders).

    Pretty neat for the likes of you and me. For our future economic well-being, insist on products that are “designed for materials recovery”.

    I also like the “producer take-back” principle. I also might very much like a redux of the good old “deposit fee reimbursed upon presentation at end of life-cycle” plan. That’s another way to incentivize people of modest income to scan the environment for returnable materials.

    When I was a kid, soda-pop bottles got 2 cents deposit refunded at the grocery store. If I filled up my little red wagon with bottles, I really cashed in. I lived near a major road, and back then people littered big-time.

    At that time, a really good candy bar cost 5c.

    I was motivated.

    1. NoFreeWill

      Labor intensivity is a major reason recycling schemes fail, anything worth mining is not worth recovering because the former is much cheaper than the latter. Capitalism means this sort of scheme is highly unprofitable and there are many other big incentives in place for the supply chain NOT to make this easier… the circular economy basically implies socialist planning of the entire economy, but the people who wrote the book on it have no idea how political-economy works and are just advocating we SOMEHOW transition to their model from our current completely different one. They don’t address the problem of politics at all basically. No recognition that capitalists will oppose their model at every step and defeat it if an organized popular revolution doesn’t happen.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        the circular economy basically implies socialist planning of the entire economy, but the people who wrote the book on it have no idea how political-economy works and are just advocating we SOMEHOW transition to their model from our current completely different one.

        Too strong a generalization. Bottom-up, market-driven incrementalism also works. Start somewhere small, iron out the tech and economics, and scale up.

        I do agree that most times the details of the transition from old to new are glib. Not always the case, tho. And if you continue to buy into your generalization, you’re left with nothin’ but the old, right?

        You OK with that?

        There are a lot of ways to cut the cake. Batteries generally have std form-factors; similar type battery has similar size, similar connections, etc. So there’s a ready-made market if you can figure out how to design a battery for recovery.

        I pay $100 for a lithium ion battery for my portable drill/driver. It’s junk when it dies. If I could take it to a local battery store, exchange it for a new one (and pay, say, $50), if the quality was close to the same (longevity), I’d do that. A lot of people would.

        So we need a market entrant (of any scale) that can actually design and build a battery that’s recoverable. There’s a big prize for that (Dept of Energy) and there’s a good deal of private money at work here, too.

        It’s gonna happen. Materials are progressively less cheap, and labor is progressively more cheap. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to design for recovery and reuse and repair.

        Market forces will make it happen. Bottom up, probably not top-down.

  7. Alex Cox

    Two feature films released this year deal with the less-good aspects of “clean” energy production.

    UTAMA is a Bolivian film set in the Altiplano, where the water is running out and the alpaca ranchers cannot feed their animals. They pray and dig deeper wells, to no avail. Watching this very moving picture I couldn’t stop thinking of the lithium mine on the other side of the mountain, draining the water and polluting the pristine air.

    AS BESTAS is about a French couple trying to establish themselves as farmers in Northern Spain. A wind-power company wants to buy up the local farms so as to extend its operation. When they say no, all hell breaks loose. But it isn’t the industrialists who provoke the tragedy – they are basically indifferent. It’s the neighbours.

    AS BESTAS suffers from trendily dark interiors, where you can’t see the characters’ faces. But it’s a powerful film. UTAMA is mesmerizing.

  8. Carl Olden

    What ever came of the huge battery research investment funded by Bill Gates?
    His philanthropy earns my respect for the guy.

  9. LawnDart

    I’d note that in the photo of the sort-line, the workers are wearing shitty dust-masks which are piss-poor protection against the hazardous waste that they are dealing with, especially after that crap heads through a shredder and releases a stew of toxic heavy metals that would include lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury.

    Aside from liver damage, kidney damage, and brain damage, they’re pretty much shoo-ins for membership to the cancer-club, if a stroke, heart-attack, or organ failure don’t get them first.

    They should be wearing disposable bunny-suits to prevent skin-absorbtion and respirators, and would be if anyone gave a damn about their health. Sucks to be them.

Comments are closed.