EU ponders recycling rules for electric car batteries

Electric car Reuters final.JPG

This article is part of our special report Electric Vehicles.

The looming challenge of how to deal with hundreds of thousands of used lithium batteries produced to power electric car is on the Brussels "to do" list, EU sources say.

“It’s on our radar,” an EU official told EURACTIV. “But we are just starting this approach and our difficulty and challenge is to prioritise, because it’s impossible to consider all products, all materials and all combinations of waste streams.”

Lithium is more plentiful than the nickel and cobalt used in hybrid and earlier electric car models. But because recycling it is up to five times more expensive than mining it, few car companies are ready for the scale of recycling that will be needed.

Electric cars have been idealised by some environmentalists, but as well as needing a clean electric energy supply to deliver CO2 savings, end of life cycle planning for their bulky lithium-ion batteries – which can weigh up to 250 kilograms – will also need to be done.

"The trouble is that the recycling rate of all the high tech metals that are so much in demand today is less than 1%," Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, the co-chair of the UNEP’s International Resource Panel told EURACTIV.

"This recycling rate applies also to lithium that you need for car batteries.”

Batteries directive

Under the EU’s batteries directive, member states are obliged to collect 25% of all portable batteries – which are often made of lithium-ion – by 2012. That figure is supposed to rise to 45% by 2016.

There is general scepticism about whether these targets will be met, and a recognition that there will soon be a lot more lithium-ion batteries to dispose of, despite manufacturers' attempts to prolong their batteries lives.  

Roland Berger Strategy Consultants believe that lithium-ion powered electric cars could make up 20% of the Western European car market share by 2020.

Another consultancy firm, Frost & Sullivan, proposed that nearly 500,000 lithium-ion battery units per year could be needed by 2015. Because of their prohibitive cost, they will probably be leased to electric car buyers, rather than sold.

Industry insiders believe that the world’s climate might not be able to wait for the market prices to correctly align themselves with a planetary crisis. 

"The implication is that if you have the prices fluctuate just by market demand and supply, then you might not be ready for the moment that you need to be,” said Sybil Brouwer, the general manager of battery recycling and recycling development at the newly opened Umicore plant in Hoboken, Belgium.

"It might be an idea to ask for a certain amount of recycled material in your product,” he told EURACTIV. If car companies were obliged to buy recycled lithium-ion, it would guarantee a non-market price for the material, he said.

Vague commitment

But EU experts suggest that this may still be some time off, and the private sector has not yet taken up the slack. So far only two car companies have signed recycling deals with Umicore – Tesla and Renault

Weighed down by an ongoing trench war over the Eco-design directive, with only 11 out of the directive’s 41 named product groups approved as of March 2011, there is also a distinct lack of urgency in the Brussels air.

On the radar or not, the closest the European Commission came to mentioning lithium-ion in the recent resource efficiency roadmap was a vague commitment to "ensure security of supply of critical materials (needed for batteries)" on page 26.

But a staff working paper on the roadmap had previously noted (on Page 26) that the deployment of ‘green’ vehicles increased the demand for raw materials – like lithium for batteries – which were “subject to supply restrictions and concentrated in a few geographical areas.”

“Sometimes the recycling schemes haven’t been set up yet to implement the lofty goals that we’ve set,” the Green MEP Reinhart Butikofer said wistfully, as the Umicore plant in Hoboken opened its doors for business in September.

In November 2008, the European Commission presented a new integrated strategy for raw materials, suggesting three pillars for the EU's policy response to different challenges related to access to global resources:

Since then, an EU expert group has identified 14 raw materials seen as "critical" for EU high-tech and eco-industries and suggested that the bloc’ global diplomacy should be geared up to ensure that companies gain easier access to them in future.

For the experts, the "criticality" of these raw materials relates to their production, which is concentrated in a handful of countries – mainly China, Russia, Congo and Brazil. It also relates to difficulties in substituting them with more commonly available materials and to their low recycling rates.

An updated version of the 2008 plan was presented in February 2011, with raw materials issues elevated to become a full part of the bloc's free trade agreements.

  • By 2012: Member states are obliged to collect 25% of all portable batteries.
  • By 2016: That figure is supposed to rise to 45%.

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