A car is not just a car

One of the questions we frequently get at PTP about lithium and EVs is: Will recycling help? That is, can we recycle the various components of batteries and develop a “circular economy” so that we don’t ever need mines like Thacker Pass to mine new materials, like lithium?

While recycling can sometimes be better than mining new materials, there are enough significant problems with recycling and the goal of a circular economy that we do not believe that recycling will make any difference now or in the future in terms of the impacts of cars, batteries, and car culture on the environment. Here’s why.

Growth always outstrips demand

There are currently 1.4 billion cars and other vehicles on the road in the world. Of those, about 11 million are EVs. We know that to supply lithium to meet demand for EVs by 2040 (about 300 million EVs), lithium mining will need to increase forty times. Add in demand for battery storage and that figure goes even higher. And that’s just for the lithium. Li-ion batteries also include metals like cobalt, nickel, graphite, iron, aluminum, and manganese, all of which must be mined and refined.

Even if we were able to recycle all the current Li-ion batteries in the world right now, the supply of materials from recycling would make up only a tiny fraction of what is demanded by the market. Given that Li-ion batteries have a limited lifespan, the demand for materials will only increase as more and more batteries are deployed, age-out, and require replacement. Recycling rates for Li-ion batteries currently run at less than 1% because the batteries are extremely difficult to recycle (see more below). Sourcing new materials costs a lot less than recycling the old materials. So for lithium recycling to make sense, not only does the recycling technology need to improve, the economic incentives for recycling need to change. This is all a monumental task.

The recycling process is toxic and loses materials

Even if a robust recycling system is in place, new materials will always be needed because materials are always lost in any recycling process. Recycling rates for battery materials such as lithium, aluminum, cobalt, nickel, and copper run between 30-70% depending on the material, the battery, and the recycling process. A recent article by renewable energy researcher Alexander Dunlap states:

Lithium, for Li-ion batteries, has a particularly low recycling rate, less than 1%. Between 2017-2030, it is expected that there will be 11 million tons of spent lithium ion batteries in need of recycling (Sovacool et al., 2020). This relates to material losses in recycling processes, which includes the technical or economic feasibility to recover the suitable quality of material from the recycling process (Hund et al., 2020). The WB [World Bank] report states that Aluminum has a 42-70% EOL [End Of Life] and 34-36% RC [Recycled Content] rate; Cobalt has a 68% EOL and 32% RC rate; Copper has a 43-53% EOL and 20-37% RC rate; and Nickel has 57-63% EOL and 29-41% RC rate (Hund et al., 2020: 25). Recycling rates will vary according to technological changes, valuation and institutional regulations.

* End of Life (EOL): How much of a mineral is recycled at the end of its use in a product; Recycled Content (RC): % of secondary material that goes into end-use demand for a mineral.

The loss of raw materials in the recycling process means replacing current batteries always requires new material, and that building more batteries to handle the growth in demand will therefore also require new materials.

Aside from the loss of materials, the process of recycling the metals in a battery is extremely toxic and energy intensive. A recent article in Science magazine describes the process:

[R]ecyclers rely on two techniques, known as pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy. The more common is pyrometallurgy, in which recyclers first mechanically shred the cell and then burn it, leaving a charred mass of plastic, metals, and glues. At that point, they can use several methods to extract the metals, including further burning. “Pyromet is essentially treating the battery as if it were an ore” straight from a mine, Gaines says. Hydrometallurgy, in contrast, involves dunking battery materials in pools of acid, producing a metal-laden soup. Sometimes the two methods are combined.
Each has advantages and downsides. Pyrometallurgy, for example, doesn’t require the recycler to know the battery’s design or composition, or even whether it is completely discharged, in order to move ahead safely. But it is energy intensive. Hydrometallurgy can extract materials not easily obtained through burning, but it can involve chemicals that pose health risks. And recovering the desired elements from the chemical soup can be difficult, although researchers are experimenting with compounds that promise to dissolve certain battery metals but leave others in a solid form, making them easier to recover. For example, Thompson has identified one candidate, a mixture of acids and bases called a deep eutectic solvent, that dissolves everything but nickel.
Both processes produce extensive waste and emit greenhouse gases, studies have found.

Direct recycling, whereby the battery is disassembled and the materials in the battery are retrieved directly, is also being developed. However, this process is extremely labor intensive, toxic, and retrieves even less of the original material. The same Science magazine article quoted above describes how a battery module can take 2 hours to dismantle, and the glues holding everything together in the module must be dissolved with solvent “so toxic that the European Union has introduced restrictions on its use, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined last year that it poses an ‘unreasonable risk’ to workers.”

EVs and batteries enable an unsustainable lifestyle

Whether recycling batteries for EVs ever becomes viable is ultimately beside the point, because a car is not just a car. As we’ve seen a car demands mining, not just for the batteries but for all the parts that make up a car, which includes plastic, made from fossil fuels; steel, made from iron ore and refined with coal; and electronics, requiring many of the same metals found in a battery, and more. We all know the impacts from fossil fuel mining, and we know that metals mining produces at least 50% of the toxic pollution released into the environment.

A car demands infrastructure, like roads, parking lots, tires, maintenance, and all that goes with that. We know that tires are responsible for a huge amount of microplastics that pervade and poison the environment, found from Antarctica to the Arctic and everywhere in between (everyone on Earth now eats, drinks, and breathes microplastic everyday). We know that roads, made from concrete and asphalt—both completely dependent on and made with fossil fuels—fragment habitat, kill huge numbers of humans and non-humans, cause erosion and run-off, and must be perpetually maintained to allow vehicle traffic. Some countries are using recycled plastic mixed in with concrete and asphalt for new road materials, ensuring that this plastic will contaminate the environment for eons. A 2018 study found 21 million km of roads exist in 222 countries (mostly in the wealthy countries), and estimates another 3 – 4.7 million km of roads will be built by 2050.

A car demands that we use it, and an efficient car demands that we use it even more. As Max Wilbert describes in his book Bright Green Lies, a car that gets 1 mpg is much better for the environment than a car that gets 100 mpg because if you have a car that gets 1 mpg it’s unlikely you could ever afford to drive it. EV makers love to promote how efficient their cars are, meaning they are cheaper to own and drive long term than a gas-powered car. Access to more efficient cars means more people will drive more, putting more pressure on the environment, requiring more roads and road maintenance, and increasing how often the components of that car—like the batteries and tires—will need to be replaced.

And a car demands that we travel. What’s the point of having a car if we don’t use it to go places? The problem here is that we use cars to take us away from our communities, to become tourists in places we don’t live. Communities become dependent on tourism to bring money into their economies, which then forces communities to do whatever they can to attract more tourists. These tourists put pressure on the environment in communities, as tourists inevitably buy more, increasing overall global consumption, and visit the “beautiful” places, harming them in the process. Tourism drives up home prices, often pricing out land and homes for locals. As many of us have seen, over time, tourism can destroy the very nature of a place, thus destroying what attracted people there to begin with.

The way forward

All of us in developed countries like the United States (possibly the most car-centric culture in the world) have grandparents or great-grandparents whose families did not have cars when they were born. Almost no one had a car until the 1908 Ford Model T became available for purchase by the masses. And even then, most people did not have a car until many years later. Traveling more than a few miles was an arduous journey, so people mostly stayed home, and lived their entire lives in the communities where they were born, surrounded by their families and friends. We don’t need to travel the world; we just think we do. Our great-grandparents got everything they needed to live from their community’s immediate surroundings, with only a few goods shipped from afar by ships and trains. We don’t need a global shipping industry for food and goods; we just think we do, and we’ve structured our lives with the assumption that this global shipping industry will continue to exist, despite the horrific impact that industry has on the natural world and human well-being.

Rather than attempting to justify more lithium mining with some future imaginary circular economy that is unlikely to ever exist, we could accept instead that we need another way. Our current way of life—the one we were born into, the one that allows us to travel halfway across the world in a mere few hours, the one that allows us to drive across the U.S. in just a few days, the one that allows us to access previously inaccessible wilderness via new roads and 4-wheel drive cars, the one that allows us to commute an hour to and from work, the one that allows us to eat strawberries shipped from Mexico in January—this way of life cannot continue because it depends on ever-more resource extraction and destruction of the living world.

So how do we move forward knowing this? We reclaim the joys of our local communities, of local food, and staying close to our families and friends. We rejoice in the staycation rather than the international trips, in the opportunities to work with and for our own communities rather than for multinational corporations. We work to restore local ecosystems and re-wild where we can so the land where we live provides for our needs once again. We educate ourselves in the local ecology so we can understand how we human animals fit into the web of life that embraces us, and how we can care for those with whom we share that web, those with whom we are completely interdependent.

Many people believe they can’t live without cars. But all humans lived without cars until a mere 113 years ago, and we can do so again. A world without cars is a quieter, slower, and more wonderful world, not just for humans but for everyone.

Conclusion

Continuing to maintain car-culture is, ultimately, a dead-end. Lithium, and the other metals and minerals required to build cars and batteries are all non-renewable, meaning eventually we will run out of those materials, just like we will run out of fossil fuels (and already have run out of the easily accessible fossil fuels). Recycling lithium specifically, as well as the other metals and materials in batteries, is currently not a viable solution to the ever increasing demand for these raw materials. If we continue to believe that replacing gasoline cars with EVs is how we will solve the climate change crisis and deal with rapidly depleting easily accessible oil, we will continue to see a huge expansion in the mining necessary to meet the demand for battery materials. This expansion means we will see many more places like Thacker Pass destroyed in the process. All of these places are home to someone already, whether that someone is sagebrush plants and the sage-grouse dependent on them, the trees and all the life those trees support, or the humans who happen to live on land rich with these “resources” as mining companies call them. All will be sacrificed in the rush to build more batteries and more cars—unless we can stop them.

Join us. Let’s stop them, and then create a better way forward, together.

So She Can, At Last, Heal

Most people when they first arrive at Thacker Pass declare that she is very beautiful. She is very beautiful, yes, but she is also very sick – so sick, in fact, that her sickness is becoming terminal.

It is not difficult to see. Take a walk along on any of the dirt roads carved across Thacker Pass’ fragile soil and you’ll find cheatgrass growing in the wounds the roads cause. Cheatgrass chokes out Thacker Pass’ native annual and perennial grasses. This cheatgrass makes Thacker Pass more vulnerable to wildfires like the ones that have swept the tops of the Montana mountains who form the northern boundary of Thacker Pass. Those wildfires, exacerbated by climate change and drought, destroyed thousands of acres of some of the best old-growth sage brush left on Earth. The Bureau of Land Management must have recognized the danger to the old-growth sage brush in the Pass. With that twisted logic so peculiar to government bureaucracies, BLM decided to kill large swaths of sage brush to save the rest. Government workers on tractors and bulldozers created firebreaks by dragging heavy chains across the land to rip out long rectangles of sage brush just in case the rest of the sage brush is one-day threatened by fire.

It’s not the cheatgrass’ fault. The fault falls squarely on humans – invasive European humans – who spread cheatgrass along the railroad lines when they discarded the straw used for dry goods packing, imported cheatgrass seeds mixed in with cereal grains, and threw away the bedding straw and cow dung from cattle cars.

Beginning in April, the ranchers drive their cattle into Thacker Pass and the Pass’ wild songs of wind, meadowlarks, hawks, and coyotes are drowned out by the cows’ incessant, domestic mewling. The horizons, once rolling like unbroken waves of sage brush seas, are littered with the black-box bodies of cows. If, disturbed by the visual pollution of invasive cattle surrounding you, you drop your eyes to the ground, you will find it covered everywhere in the round plops of cow shit.

Even when there are no white people present, the cows symbolize settler domination of the region. After Europeans began pushing native people off their land for silver and gold in the 1860s, they brought large numbers of cattle to Nevada to feed the miners. Cattle have devastated places like Thacker Pass. There are times when the original grazers – antelope, bighorn sheep, and mule deer– can be seen amongst the cows. If you gaze into the eyes of an antelope munching on sage brush and then gaze into the eyes of a cow, you might recognize what has been stolen from those poor beings, the once-wild ungulates humans enslaved thousands of years ago and now known as cattle.

At the east end of Thacker Pass, no sage brush grows anymore. There is only cheatgrass. Sage brush and other native plants cannot grow there anymore because local water supplies have been so overdrawn that the subterranean water table has dropped too low for native plant roots to reach. The cheatgrass, growing brown already in May, droop their heads in respect for their lost kin.

Move west across Thacker Pass and you’ll stumble across Lithium Nevada’s test wells. The wells are marked by bright yellow and red metal tubes rising from the ground. Lithium Nevada has placed padlocks on all of the wells so that no one else can learn just how much water exists below Thacker Pass. The wells pierce the land like syringes. They puncture the earth to draw out Thacker Pass’ lifeblood: water. We are all addicted to water, of course. But, the padlocks are proof that mines are drug lords, hoarding what all of us need, extravagantly wasting water on other addictions like technology, wealth, and power.

Thacker Pass’ pain might tempt you to seek comfort in the sky. Look up and you’ll find the sky criss-crossed by the puffy lacerations of jet fuel exhaust. The combustion of that fuel contributes to the climate change that is intensifying the regional drought and speeding up the desertification of Thacker Pass and the rest of the Great Basin.

If you allow yourself to see all of this, you might smell Thacker Pass’ death rising from her ailments to stir with the dust in the wind.

What will you do, then, when you see Thacker Pass as she truly is? How will you respond when you learn that beneath her beauty, beyond her superficial sweetness, you confront the reality of her experience? Will you give up? Will you move on to some other remote place to pretend to be free from the ongoing destruction of Earth? Will you allow Thacker Pass’ blood and bile, the stench from her wounds, the ugly truth of her scars to push you away?

Or, will you realize no nurse is coming for Thacker Pass, no doctor is coming for Earth? Will you accept that, as powerful as she is, she cannot recover from her wounds on her own? Will you cling to the glimpses of beauty she has blessed you with and resolve to cut out the cancers afflicting her so that she can, at last, heal?

Notes from Peehee mu’huh (Thacker Pass) Part 5: Apprentice to Stopping This

By Rebecca Wildbear

Two Bureau of Land Management officers came to visit. It was snowing and the wind was blowing hard.

“Are you guys having fun yet?” one asked.

“The weather’s always like this when we come,” the other said.

Two cops showed up a week later. It was warm and sunny.

“Listen,” one said. “We’re on your side.”

“We hunt here. We don’t want this mine,” the other said. “Here’s our card, call us.”

They were friendly. Then one asked, “What are your plans anyway?”

“We’ll have to see.”

Those planning to get rich by destroying Peehee mu’huh are at home with their families. The law is on their side. Most protestors would rather be doing something else than having to defend the land, but they feel obligated. Protecting the land is a natural expression of their love.

What will it take to stop this? Those at Peehee mu’huh live this question, apprenticing to how we may protect the last wild places. I wish they taught this in school. Should the protestors put their bodies in front of the earth-destroying machines? Or the explosives? Perhaps they will be arrested, serve jail time, or be released on the condition they never protest again. No one knows how to stop a mine, but we try. Probably we won’t stop it without the help of more people.

Being out there is hard. The Earth gave me a strength beyond what I knew I had. After a couple weeks, I needed to leave to return to work. Construction could begin anytime. I said good-bye to the sagebrush and the meadowlark. Will I see them again? Will they be alive next week or next month?

Or are these the last moments of life for this 16-million-year-old mountainside?

Photo by Max Wilbert

Notes from Peehee mu’huh (Thacker Pass) Part 2: Atsa-Koodakuh-Wyh Nuwu (People of the Red Mountain)

By Rebecca Wildbear

The elders drummed and sang. We danced around the fire with Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Members who oppose the mine. Their ancestors are buried here. They know the harm that mines cause. Tribal members who worked in the McDermitt and Cordero mercury mines were later diagnosed with cancer.

“The Earth did not consent to this,” one woman said.

The lithium mine was approved without consulting the tribe or the land. Peehee mu’huh is the tribe’s name for Thacker Pass. Gathered there in late April, tribal members prayed. Some stayed up all night. It was windy and cold, but enduring hardship is part of the prayer.

I loved being with them—their gentle eyes, soft-spoken voices, deep presence. Raking the ground with two spiritual elders in preparation to construct a teepee, I wanted our time together to continue. I wanted to know them better. Some tribal members did a thirty-mile prayer run that weekend, ending at Peehee mu’huh, where the community waited with a blessing of water and smoke, followed by a feast.

Four young men sang on the last day. I wept. There are no songs like this on the radio. All humans once sang these kinds of songs, before there were cars, televisions, phones, and computers. My heart leapt with joy to hear that these songs still exist. I do not know the songs of my ancestors.

The prayers of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal Members will continue at Peehee mu’huh. They will gather in ceremony again on May 22 and May 29.

Art by Travis London

Storm Song: Why I Love Mormon Crickets

When you find yourself bitter that no one seems to care, when you’ve tricked yourself that you’re all alone, when you’ve fought longer than you thought you could and the war has just begun, look for the little ones, the creatures underfoot and overhead, our tiny allies humans too often ignore.

When I was bitter, feeling sorry for myself, and exhausted, Thacker Pass showed me Mormon crickets. They came alive in late April. I went to sleep one night, forgetting that Mormon crickets even existed, and the next morning the dusty road leading into camp was covered with them. Cars couldn’t drive up the road without killing hundreds of them. Walkers couldn’t walk up the road without squashing dozens of them.

Mormon crickets are one of the most hated species in the Great Basin. But, I fell in love with them. Fascinated by their sudden appearance in Thacker Pass, I wanted to learn more. I learned that Mormon crickets aren’t even crickets – they’re shieldbacked katydids. From a distance, they look uniformly brown. But, on closer inspection, a swarm of Mormon crickets becomes a rainbow of hazel browns, rich scarlets, royal purples, iridescent greens, and obsidian blacks. When they hatch, they are tiny – maybe a third of an inch long. After a few days of feeding on sage brush and grasses, they become noticeably longer. Some Mormon crickets can eat and grow their way to being three inches long.

Most importantly, Mormon crickets are warriors. They earned their name in their first campaign. In the late summer of 1847, members of a new Christian sect, the Mormons, invaded the Salt Lake Valley in Utah and brought humanity’s oldest war against the natural world with them: agriculture. Immediately upon arrival in the arid Utah terrain, Mormons dammed and diverted streams for irrigation systems, stripped land for farms, ripped stone from the earth for churches, and cut living forests for houses and other buildings.

The Mormon crickets who hatched in the spring of 1848 found the first Mormon settlers’ newly-planted crops. Because there had been rumors from their grasshopper relatives on the Great Plains of a new kind of pale-skinned human who had recently arrived only to immediately begin destroying grasslands for crops, these young Mormon crickets recognized the declaration of war. In fact, historians still call this The Cricket War of 1848. The Mormon crickets knew that the best way to win a war is to destroy your enemy’s capacity to wage war. They knew their Mormon enemies would be hard-pressed to wage war if they were starving.

So, the Mormon crickets marshaled their strength and ambushed beans and peas, first. Mormon diarist Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young wrote on May 27, 1847:

“…the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans for us and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept over peas, then came into our garden; took everything clean. We went out with brush and undertook to drive them, but they were too strong for us.”

Then, they assaulted cucumbers, melons, pumpkins, and squash. Finally, they attacked corn and grains. Mrs. Young wrote on May 28, 1847: “Today the crickets have commenced on our corn and small grain. They have eaten off 12 acres for Brother Rosacrants, 7 for Charles and are now taking Edmunds.” The next day, Mrs. Young wrote: “Today they have destroyed ¾ of an acre of squashes, our flax, two acres of millet and our rye, and are now to work in our wheat. What will be the result we know not.”

If it wasn’t for the seagulls and the frost, the Mormon Crickets of 1848 might have succeeded in driving the Mormons from the Salt Lake Valley. Seagulls arrived just in time to feast on the crickets, frost froze many crickets to death, and the Mormons were able to salvage enough of their crops to survive. Though Mormon crickets have failed to push European invaders and their agriculture from the land, they renew their battle every year. And, to this day, Mormon crickets cause significant damage to crops in the Great Basin.

Mormon crickets have bravely battled another destructive culture for decades: car culture. Some years, when the crickets have seen too many of their winged kin massacred on windshields, heard too much of the smack and crunch of gopher, rabbit, and deer bones under speeding tires, and choked too long on roadside exhaust, they have taken matters into their own hands. In what has become an almost-yearly phenomenon in the Great Basin, Mormon crickets have sacrificed themselves in such numbers that some winding, hilly roads become so slick with cricket blood that cars run off the road. These suicide missions sometimes even succeed in making roads impassable.

After learning about the bravery Mormon crickets have shown, I went looking for them. It was a cloudless April day. The sun poured down unfiltered. Wind stirred up dust and reminded me of the drought. The green slopes of the Montana Mountains were already giving way to brown – weeks too early. The land and I longed for rain.

I found the crickets. As I approached them, I noticed that my footsteps caused splashes of hopping crickets on the dirt and sage brush branches. I paused and listened. “Dance with us,” the crickets said.

Many of the crickets seemed to hop around to face me, beady eyes looking up at me, antennae reaching towards me. There was a tempo in the way those antennae twitched. It was a music I felt more than heard.

I picked up my left foot and stomped on the road. The crickets leapt and their tiny feet jingled the sage brush. I stomped my right foot. The crickets jumped and their tiny feet jangled the grass. As I found the rhythm, my feet were the bass line and cricket feet were the treble. My feet became thunder and cricket feet became rain. Boom. Patter. Boom. Patter. Boom. Patter. We brought a storm song to Thacker Pass.

I don’t know how long we danced like this. Eventually, I was soaked in sweat, out of breath, and my throat was coated in dust. I stopped for a breather. It took a few beats for the crickets to notice. As they settled, I thanked them for their courage, for their service in the war against the natural world, and for dancing with me. Then, I asked them what they needed from me.

“Fight with us,” is all they said before scattering back into the sage brush. And, I knew if these tiny creatures could be so brave, I could, too.