For Electric Cars, Battery Recycling and Demand Reduction Must Go Hand-in-Hand

A new report looks at strategies to minimize the need for new mining for EV lithium-ion batteries.

Electric car charging point, London, UK
Malcolm P Chapman / Getty Images

For those interested in cutting carbon emissions—and that really should be all of us at this point—electric cars present a unique conundrum. On the one hand, we know that they already offer significantly lower lifetime emissions pretty much everywhere, even in places where the grid runs primarily on coal or oil.

On the other hand, they are still private cars. And that means they have a tremendous amount of embodied emissions involved in their manufacture, they often sit idle for much of the day, and even when they are used they are hardly the best way to move one or two humans around. This latter challenge is exacerbated by the fact that electric car batteries also require an awful lot of cobalt, lithium, nickel, and copper—putting intense pressure on mining regions that are already under environmental and social pressure.

So what’s the world to do? Should we press ahead with strategies to reduce the impact of electric cars? Or should we focus our energies on reducing private car ownership in the first place?

According to a new report from Earthworks—a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting communities in mining regions and their environments—the answer to the above questions is "yes" and "yes."

Commissioned by Earthworks and produced by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF), the report seeks to quantify the specific strategies that could be used to drive down raw material demand. Snappily titled "Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling," the report finds that while current recycling efforts are actually achieving decent recycling rates for both cobalt and nickel (80% and 73% respectively), rates are much, much lower for lithium (12%) and copper (10%).

According to the report’s authors, it should be technically possible to achieve recycling rates as high as 90% for all four metals outlined above—and there are several processes in development that could be scaled up.

In fact, the authors believe recycling has the potential to reduce primary demand compared to total demand in 2040, by approximately 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel, and 55% for copper, based on projected demand. According to Rachael Wakefield-Rann, Senior Research Consultant at UTS-ISF and one of the report’s authors, policy-level interventions will be essential in moving toward these numbers:

“Policy is important to promote recycling of a broader range of materials as current technologies target the most valuable (i.e. cobalt and nickel)."

"Policy approaches, like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) or Products Stewardship," she adds, "are particularly important if they can drive circular design changes to extend lifetimes, enable reuse opportunities and improve recycling efficiencies.”

It’s important, however, not to overhype the potential for recycling. As can be seen from the chart below that’s focused on lithium (the report contains similar charts for the other three metals), even a relatively dramatic 25% reduction in primary demand still leave cars using more than 10 times as much lithium as they do today.

Chart showing battery recycling rates

And that’s why recycling alone won’t even come close to saving us.

In addition to aggressively ensuring that electric car manufacturing optimizes metals recycling, the report finds that it will also be necessary to pursue a multifaceted effort. The report points to a broad arsenal of strategies that includes:

  • Extending battery life from the currently projected 8-15 years to 20+ years or more, if car owners can be convinced not to "trade up" so often.
  • Developing "second life" reuse schemes that deploy electric car batteries for other important functions like renewable energy.
  • Reducing the need for private car ownership through investments in mass transit, active transport like walking and biking, and car-sharing schemes too.

While such approaches are no doubt important, the report does not quantify them in quite the same way as technical or policy-level improvements on recycling. In an email to Treehugger, Wakefield-Rann explained that this is due to a combination of factors that includes less mature solutions, limited data, as well as the inherent constraints in terms of the scope of the report—namely projected demand for EVs themselves and the materials that go into them. (Second-life applications, for example, would not show up in this specific data—but would still reduce demand for these metals overall.) 

Nevertheless, said Wakefield-Rann, she believes that the potential for recycling will ultimately be dwarfed by other demand reduction strategies:

“Efforts to reduce demand for new vehicles through fundamental system changes including shifts to public transport or active transport are very important and will likely have the greatest impact on demand in the future. Political commitment will be to key to the efficacy of these strategies.”

In many ways, this is a case study not just in how to approach battery manufacturing and recycling, but sustainable design in general. As the press release that accompanies the report argues, a truly circular economy will require us to think outside the usual silos:

“Best practice policies for managing electric vehicle batteries should align with circular economy principles that prioritize strategies for ensuring decreased material and energy, such as avoidance and reuse, before pursuing recycling and disposal options. The European Union has recently introduced new EV battery regulations in line with circular economy principles. More industrial economies, including the United States, must follow suit.” 

Ultimately, this report offers both a strong argument for investing in robust and innovative recycling and battery take-back policy, infrastructure, and processes—and also an argument against relying on those policies, infrastructures, and processes – to get us out of the mess we’ve gotten into.

From better buses and e-bikes, to car-free planning and telecommuting, many of the solutions to electric car battery demand will have little to do with cars at all.
I guess it may be time to think outside the big metal box.