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The Path To True EV Sustainability

Electric vehicles are taking off. As an essential part of any viable pathway to reaching global emissions targets, the EV industry is currently the focus of a massive global acceleration, with massive backing from both the public and private sectors. But there is a major problem with this breakneck growth. 

Although electric cars are majorly beneficial for the environment as compared to conventional combustion engines, they pose a major threat to the environment in other ways. EV batteries rely on finite metals and minerals such as lithium and cobalt, which must be mined from the earth, which always carries negative environmental externalities. And when EV batteries come to the end of their life, many of them end up in landfills, where they release toxins including heavy metals. 

When you look at the scale of the industry, this is a huge problem. Reaching net zero emissions by mid-century will require an electric car fleet of over 300 million vehicles by 2030, and 60% of new car sales will have to be electric models. Already, electric vehicle sales are on a sharp upward trend, with sales nearly doubling between 2020 and 2021, according to figures from the International Energy Agency. 

For electric vehicles to reach their full green potential, battery recycling is an essential part of an EV's life cycle. But the industry is just starting to rise to this challenge. As of 2019, just 5% of lithium-ion batteries in the United States were being recycled, according to the Department of Energy. Most of the EV batteries on the road now were not designed to be recycled, and creating good policy and infrastructure for recycling programs is tricky. 

"Batteries differ widely in chemistry and construction, which makes it difficult to create efficient recycling systems. And the cells are often held together with tough glues that make them difficult to take apart," explains a 2021 report from Science. "That has contributed to an economic obstacle: It's often cheaper for batterymakers to buy freshly mined metals than to use recycled materials." Even companies that are willing to shell out and are actively searching for used and recycled batteries to install in their cars for greater life-cycle sustainability can't find them. And they may not be able to do so for another decade, as they wait for the recycling industry to find its legs. 

While recycling technology has majorly lagged behind the rest of the EV sector, major progress is finally being made. The technology for battery recycling is rapidly improving as researchers rise to the challenges of EV battery chemistry and construction. In academic spheres and in disruptive startups, major gains are being made to make the recycling process more affordable and sustainable. 

In the United States, battery recycling has gained a lot of momentum as an important part of the green energy transition. The Biden administration recently awarded $2.8 billion to 20 domestic battery manufacturers, with a big funding focus on recycling. Furthermore, the Department of energy has been loaning billions to battery recycling firms including Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle.

The private sector has also gotten increasingly involved in battery recycling, as several major automakers have forged partnerships with recycling firms. Honda recently announced a collaboration with Ascend Elements to "establish a closed-loop recycling system for batteries, in which materials from end-of-life batteries are reused in new batteries," according to reporting from The Hill. 

Recycling EV batteries is not profitable - yet - but it's getting more affordable all the time. Redwood Materials says that "in time, as end-of-life pack volumes increase, the logistics cost will decrease so that batteries will become assets that will help make EVs more sustainable and affordable in the long run."

Battery recycling plants, from Nevada to South Carolina and Alabama, are now popping up nationwide. Rising demand for recycling services and a swell in financial support from federal programs and the private sector have set the battery recycling industry up for a major growth spurt. And the timing couldn't be better. As electric vehicle sales continue to grow rapidly, we desperately need the recycling industry to catch up and keep pace to avoid a major battery waste crisis. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More