Each year Americans throw away more than 3 billion batteries constituting 180,000 tons of hazardous material and the situation is likely to get much worse as the world shifts to electric vehicles.
Everyday-green.com reports more than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C and D) are thrown away. They power electronic toys and games, portable audio equipment and flashlights and make up 20% of the household hazardous materials in our garbage dumps.
Unlike composted waste, batteries are hazardous and contaminate our environment, particularly our drinking water. Even though the harmful materials are tightly encased, the casing is often crushed during landfilling. The spent batteries contain toxic acids and metals such as mercury, nickel, cadmium, cobalt, lead and zinc.
While it is convenient to just chuck used batteries into the trash, the more expensive rechargeable types can be used up to 1,000 times more than the single-use types, but recharging is inconvenient and time-consuming.
However, when it comes to batteries used in gasoline powered vehicles, lead has one of the highest recycle rates of any material, up to 99%. In fact, the closed-loop model of lead battery recycling is recognized by the World Economic Forum as a strong example of the circular economy already at work.
It helps that car-owners pay a fee when purchasing a traditional car battery. The money is refunded when the spent battery is returned. The worn-out batteries are sent to recycling operations. In 2019, Teck’s Trail, BC, lead and zinc processing facility recycled over 32,500 tons of lead car batteries and 500 tons of zinc alkaline batteries.
Things are about to change dramatically as more electric vehicles populate our roads and our government and manufacturers deal with the growing backlog of old car lithium batteries.
The Guardian reported the number of electric cars worldwide surpassed 2 million in 2017. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140 million electrics globally by 2030 leaving behind 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling. That is a herculean task considering last year only 5% of the European Union’s electric car batteries were recycled.
The good news is automakers are actively looking for ways to extend the life of lithium batteries. Reprocessing spent batteries is getting more attention as manufacturers increase demand for metals, particularly cobalt, which are already in short supply.
One approach is converting car batteries for household use. The Guardian reports Aceleron, a hi-tech British startup, plans to take electric car batteries which still have 70% of their capacity and repackage them for growing home energy storage.
American Manganese, Inc. (AMY), a Surrey, B.C., company, has patented a process which recovers lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum from cathodes used in lithium-ion batteries. AMY uses a leaching and precipitation method to recover the metals. Currently, the cathodes are smelted and only a portion of the cobalt is salvaged, but virtually no lithium.
The new technology is of particular interest to our nation which imports three quarters of its cobalt, half of its lithium and all of its manganese. China is the predominant metals supplier and has been stockpiling those critical metals.
China plans to put 6 million electric cars on the roads by 2025 and wants to be the world’s predominant electric car manufacturer. The Chinese have plenty of willing investors in electric car production. VW, Daimler, Toyota, Ford, the Renault-Nissan alliance and GM all announced joint-ventures to produce electric vehicles in China.
Our opportunity is finding new environmentally and economically feasible ways to reprocess all spent batteries and prevent them from being trucked off to landfills.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.