There is no modern life without batteries. Local storage is the enabler of modern multinational business and ‘digital nomad’ culture. It allows nations to stockpile reserves of energy and manage the price of everything from home heating to construction projects. Batteries power the device in your pocket that finds you a route home when you’re lost, manages your finances on the move, and lets you fact-check almost anything, anytime, anywhere in the world.
This is unlikely to change. As we prioritize a green economy built on stored renewable energy and electric transport, investment in battery technology is only going to increase. The benefits of green energy storage and travel are now accepted, but the associated challenges are not yet fully understood. Current practices are a bubble waiting to burst. There is only so long we can go on using a dwindling supply of rare metals to power our batteries. There is only so long we can go on ignoring the societal impact of an overreliance on extraction. And there is only so long we can pile up spent batteries in landfills, causing irreparable damage to the environment.
For an economy built on sustainable power to work, we need sustainable practices at each step of the supply chain.
Rising demand for sustainable power and travel has ramped up demand for a few scarce resources. Demand for cobalt increased 22% in 2021, pushing up prices and increasing reliance on a small group of suppliers.
We cannot revert to burning coal and oil. But we also cannot continue as we are, creating ‘sustainable’ vehicles from unsustainable practices. There is a shortfall of the materials needed to go on mining indefinitely, and better use of existing resources
will be a key part of the longer-term solution. There is a parallel here with the broader climate crisis. Today, we face an urgent rush to avert disaster at great cost to both industry and the individual. If businesses had invested steadily in the infrastructure to support the transition to green energy decades ago, it would have been a lot less painful today.
Small changes can be made now to help us further down the line. Recycling spent EV batteries to recover some of these precious materials would be a huge step towards more responsible practices and lessening the reliance on extraction. Under-investment in the technology to properly dispose of and reuse batteries now will only make it harder to break the habit when, inevitably, we are forced to confront reality.
The circular economy
This month, the Environmental Services Association is promoting its Take Charge campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of throwing away old batteries. Half of landfill fires in the UK are caused by improperly disposed lithium-ion batteries, damaging the environment and costing the country £150mn a year. This is a growing issue as demand for batteries rises without the means to recycle them.
Currently, it is simply cheaper to send a spent battery to landfill than it is to recycle it, but only just. The same is true of solar panels, usually still cheaper to replace than repair. This cannot last. When scarcity raises the cost of importing these materials, there will be an inevitable rush to learn how to recycle what we already have. Better to do that now, surely, than to roll the dice only when it becomes an existential threat.
We are making steady progress. Partnerships in e-vehicle motorsport to explore EV battery recycling will stress-test technology under a full range of conditions. Spent batteries will be taken from vehicles, stripped down to their components with increasing efficiency and the recovered materials then used to create new batteries. Those batteries will then be used and recycled into new batteries, and so on. Input becomes output and output becomes input. With the breaking of one vicious cycle, we create a new, healthy circular economy.
In time, the lessons of these experiments will be shared with commercial manufacturers and competitors will be forced to catch up or go extinct. Early investors in recycling technology will be best positioned to adapt. The question is no longer whether the transition will happen, but when?
So long as there has not been a viable alternative, it has been easy to ignore the consequences of unsustainable supply chains. We are now reaching the point where that is no longer the case, and the circular economy seems inevitable.
Costs – material and abstract – are rising. It only takes one supplier to find a better way for consumers to radically change their expectations of the people who make their phones and cars. That bubble could burst at any time. If we see a sustainable future in electric vehicles and battery power, now is the time to invest in the technology to make it happen. Recycling is one piece of the puzzle, and a significant step towards building a future to last.