Batteries in the big picture – on the right track for recycling?

Batteries are being deployed at full speed across all segments of the consumer and industrial markets. To get a perspective on the big picture for battery footprint, Generations spoke with Hans Eric Melin, Managing Director of Circular Energy Storage, a London-based lithium-ion battery lifecycle consultancy.

Hans Eric Melin
Hans Eric Melin

Asked whether global society is currently following a plan for responsible production, use and disposal or recycling of batteries, Melin has a layered response: “That depends on who you ask,” he says. “In the automotive industry, the debate is raging on the overall battery footprint. Sustainability is being used as an argument against car batteries, but this is coming from those with competing technologies. Lithium-ion batteries (LI) were not an issue for phones and laptops, not least due to their small size, but in cars they are much bigger, and they threaten other technologies.”

He reminds that LI is still an emerging technology whose trajectory is yet to be defined: “LI batteries enabled the mobile phone segment, and that helped grow the overall LI industry, which then moved into the auto industry.” Now he notes that the scale of LI in the automobile industry is encouraging other industries, including marine.

“There has been dramatic development over the last 20 years. Batteries are being manufactured differently now, and on a huge scale compared to five years ago.” Scale is important for the overall CO2 footprint of LI battery production, he says. “Here, it’s really ‘The bigger the better’.”

Battery recycling at scale

Melin points out that LI battery recycling has been done from the start, but is still often described as non-existent. “That is largely because the countries controlling that narrative are not recycling much,” he explains. “Consumer electronics are exported from these countries, primarily in Europe and North America, for reuse and recycling, mainly to Asia, and mostly to China.”

He notes that China now has two-thirds of the world’s LI battery production, and that recycling is an important part of production there. “The best possibilities for recycling are present where batteries are produced at scale. A country must produce batteries in order to be efficient at recycling.”

Regarding the role of legislation in battery recycling, Melin defers to market forces: “Legislation does provide some guidelines, particularly laws that require companies to take batteries back at the end of their lives, but if and when recycling volumes meet demand, we won’t really need a grand plan.”

Other industries: the same, but different

Looking to other industries with mature lifecycle perspectives, such as aluminum, how does Melin compare the battery industry in its thinking? “The battery industry is fairly comparable to aluminum, but recycling batteries is more complex. There are many more elements to be dealt with, and the cost level is higher.”

Aluminum requires huge amounts of energy to produce, he says, so stakeholders need to recoup investments through reuse of produced material. “This is not the same with battery manufacturing. Most of the manufacturing energy is spent applying cathodes to current conductors. Recycling does not remove this part of the process from manufacturing.”

Recycling applies mostly to materials, he elaborates. Here, mining practices can be made more sustainable by using hydropower for mining operations, and gas rather than coal to power operations. “Companies building efficient value chains are in a good position, but achieving positive value is not possible along all recycling value chains. At some point someone is going to have to pay something.”

Who is getting it right?

“Europe has a history of waste handling and management more than recycling,” Melin observes.

“They have been dealing with nickel cadmium and heavy metals for some time, but more as waste than in a recycling perspective.” Yet there are some expectations for recycling in Europe, he says: “The infrastructure is not the most efficient, but it is perhaps realistic given market volumes.”

Parallel to this, recycling startups are emerging around the globe, he says. “We get new calls every week from interested parties, especially in Southeast Asia,” Melin reports. “Their advantage is proximity to China.” Growing battery production in Europe will help grow the recycling market, as manufacturers will have possibility to connect recycling to production. “This is true also in the US,” he adds. “The real question is who will produce the most batteries. That is where the most efficient recycling will be.”

Second life is another growing option, he says. “China is also excelling at second life products. It is simply not the case that batteries are being dumped. As long as there is value in products, they will be reused. This is part of the global interconnected economy.”

Does Melin believe the world will ever see a truly circular battery economy, and if so, when? “We are very close today,” he believes. “Few products are as circular as the LI battery right now, but we need a good product to start with. Car batteries are so good that they can have a second life, and the product is recycled too.” Not least, Melin points out that very few LI batteries have reached the end of their lives. “LI batteries have a long lifetime. The ability to reuse and repurpose LI batteries is there, and it is happening today.”

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