Jiayu Liang and Nick Iannaco
Reprinted with permission from Volume 21, Winter 2021 issue of Catalyst.
Vehicles are one of the largest sources of global warming pollution in the United States, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the country’s emissions. Fortunately, the growing number of electric vehicles (EVs) is already helping to reduce emissions. Over their lifetime, EVs produce significantly less global warming emissions than vehicles with internal combustion engines, even with the prevalence of fossil fuel– generated electricity.
Where the majority of the environmental impact from gasoline- and diesel-powered engines comes from their tailpipe emissions while driving, most of an EV’s associated global warming emissions occur “upstream”—that is, prior to the vehicle’s operation, in its manufacture and in the electricity generated to power it. This means efforts to make EV technology even cleaner should target these stages in an EV’s life cycle, by manufacturing batteries with recycled materials and adding more renewable energy to the power grid, which together can make a big difference in environmental impact over a vehicle’s lifetime.
Over the next 15 years, the number of EVs on US roads is expected to increase significantly, from roughly one million today to potentially tens of millions (depending on a number of factors). As demand increases for EVs, so will demand for batteries to power them—and to produce batteries in the necessary quantities, we must address many logistical, environmental, and ethical barriers.
Problems at the Source
Powering every electric vehicle is a linked group of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of lithium-ion battery cells. Each relies on minerals extracted from reserves around the world, where mining can present a trove of ethical and environmental challenges. Lithium extraction, for example, can consume significant amounts of water. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the majority of the world’s cobalt is produced, negative impacts on community health and human rights are well documented by Amnesty International and other organizations.
At the current rate of extraction, reserves of key minerals used in batteries could last up to 50 years, but as demand for EVs grows—a trend that will hopefully continue—so will the challenge of producing enough minerals to manufacture those batteries.
Fortunately, recycling offers the possibility of establishing a long-lasting and sustainable supply of critical battery materials. By extracting these materials from retired batteries, manufacturers can avoid the ethical and environmental impacts of mining for new materials, and meet up to 30 percent of total demand in the next 15 years. As the EV market grows, so will the supply of materials that can eventually be recycled, making it easier to sustainably meet battery demand as time goes on.
Untapped Potential – Sitting in Storage
When an EV battery reaches the end of its life, it must be processed somehow: repurposed, recycled, or disposed of. Because there are no recycling facilities for EV batteries in the United States operating at a large scale today, many retired EV batteries end up sitting idle inside warehouse storage facilities. While this is frustrating, it also means there’s significant room for improvement.
Lithium-ion batteries can be expected to last many years, similar to the rate at which most people replace their cars—because of wear and tear on the vehicle, or because old age and use have caused the energy storage capacity of the battery to decrease below optimal performance for the car’s owner. At this point, however, two-thirds or more of the battery’s original capacity will likely remain: more than enough for operations such as powering charging stations or providing backup power for buildings.
Unfortunately, the lack of standardized packaging, labeling, and chemistries across EV brands today poses barriers to repurposing in this manner. And current waste management policies simply do not take EV batteries into account. Globally, fewer than a dozen recycling facilities are currently processing EV batteries. When fully operational, their combined capacity will only be able to recycle 300,000 batteries each year, or roughly 10 percent of today’s global EV sales. By the early 2030s, this recycling capacity is expected to account for only one1 percent of annual sales. Clearly, waste facilities need a major expansion if they are to keep up with the growth of EVs.
Reusing batteries, recycling materials, and increasing the amount of electricity generated by renewable energy hold great potential to lessen the environmental impact of EVs. As demand increases, policy can play a powerful role in preparing us for an EV future: by setting strong standards for recycled content in new batteries, establishing facilities to responsibly handle retired batteries, developing standards that make reusing batteries more feasible, and adopting strong environmental and labor standards for mining and material processing. Manufacturers, along with state, federal, and international policymakers, all have a role in ensuring EVs are as sustainable as they can be.
For more on EV battery materials and recycling, see www.ucsusa.org/resources/ev-battery-recycling.