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.
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.