An overview of the battery recycling market

“Considering the fact that lithium batteries are not mentioned specifically in the batteries Directive, this is a grey zone that is now being addressed.”

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January 12 2021
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Willy Tomboy, a Consultant at Detomserve on electro-mobility, circular economy, batteries and end-of-life vehicles, answers pertinent questions on the battery market in 2021 and beyond, also addressing legislative matters that influence the activities of the sector. The presentation is part of the recently held International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference.   

Based on your observations, how would you describe the current atmosphere of government scrutiny toward proper battery disposal and recycling? Has most of the world moved toward stricter compliance as compared to earlier decades?

In the European Union, the Batteries Directive was launched in 2006 and enforced in all the member states in 2008. And now, twelve years later, there is a major upcoming change on this directive, which might become a regulation. While a regulation is applicable in the EU countries immediately after its entry into force, a directive is not directly applicable in EU and has to first be transposed into national law before it is applicable in a country. It takes about two years for member states to implement a directive after having made necessary changes.

Though the battery regulation has been in place since 2008, not a single word is mentioned in the directive about lithium batteries, because at the time lithium was not on the radar screen yet with electromobility. We need to understand that in the Batteries Directive they talk about three types of batteries: portable batteries, industrial batteries and automotive batteries. 

Under the Directive for portable batteries, there is a collection obligation. You need to collect a certain percentage and in Europe it is now 45 percent of the batteries placed on the market. They have a formula as per which they calculate how to reach that 45 percent. Most of the member states have reached that level already and we expect that with the change in the legislation that percentage will go up.

For lead acid batteries, there is no specific collection target, but there is a very high recycling rate indicated by the lead acid battery industry. However, they forget that almost half of the vehicles put on the market in Europe are being exported to either other European countries or outside of Europe. So, if 50 percent of the cars are being exported, for the remaining percent I think they have reached 95-98 percent recycling rate. But regarding the vehicles exported, the lead acid battery recycling rate is questionable.

For industrial batteries there is a take-back obligation, which is different than collection obligation. For instance, in take-back, if someone brings the battery, the company has to accept it, but there is no obligation to inform the customers about the collection scheme and the facility to drop off the batteries. But when they bring it to the company, the car dealer or recycler has to accept it and also demonstrate recycling efficiency.

However, considering that lithium batteries are not mentioned specifically in the Batteries Directive, this is a grey zone that is being addressed now. Also, regarding producer responsibility, this is a grey zone because in Europe, when the battery is placed on the market, for example in a vehicle by a car producer, that manufacturer or importer is considered the producer of the battery and needs to take care of the registration, and meet all requirements related to batteries in terms of reporting to the authorities about anything related to the battery throughout its life. So, there is a lot going on regarding battery compliance under the EU green deal.

Europe wants to invest heavily in battery cell manufacturing as it wants to reduce the reliance on Asia for battery production. They think they would otherwise lose momentum in vehicle production. Really challenging times for the battery industry in Europe, right from the developments all the way down to final recycling.  

You mentioned that some of the larger batteries, industrial or larger EV batteries can be repurposed. Is that a market that might be outside of the EU? And is it okay for that second life to be outside of the EU or within?

I am sure with the circular economy focus, they would like to keep those type of batteries within the EU to recover the materials for use as secondary raw material, including resources like cobalt or lithium. That is in fact the aim in the long term. However, when OEMs put vehicles on the market in Europe, and people start remanufacturing or refurbishing those type of batteries, there are concerns such as compliance, producer responsibility and so on, and this is the grey zone as there is no changeover of ownership. And if those batteries go outside of Europe and somebody starts manipulating the batteries and something happens, who is responsible? This is still a big legal issue.

So, they would like to have a clear system where if somebody else buys car batteries and industrial batteries to produce something different, then there must be a proper transfer of ownership and clear responsibilities for the entity placing those new type of batteries on the market. For instance, if it’s a second life battery, a battery for another application than the one it was initially built for, you cannot go back to the original car manufacturer to claim damage.

We hope that the revision of the Batteries Directive, which is now in the final stage, will come up with those new regulations that will take all this into account. This is essential to develop the industry of second life, because there are a lot of players in the market, there is potential, and they are looking at a potential between 40-80 percent of batteries used in electric vehicles going into second life by 2050. There are a lot of opportunities there, and there is a huge interest in extending the life of batteries to whatever extent possible as they are very valuable and expensive high-tech products. But there has to be a proper legal framework in order to do that.  

What are some of the hazards and negative consequences with lithium-ion batteries? What are the regulatory reasons why they must be handled properly at their end of life?

Lithium batteries in EVs is relatively new. When they started selling hybrid batteries on the European market initially in the year 2000, those batteries were safe and had very high residual value. So, for recyclers I think recovering materials from end-of-life batteries was good business. Lithium batteries is slightly different. Of course, they have different chemistries and some of them have a higher content of cobalt, manganese, or other materials, but the lithium content in lithium-ion batteries is very small, maybe between 2-4 percent depending upon the materials chemistry.

First, the residual value of lithium-ion batteries at the moment is rather low and in many cases is negative, so it’s an economic issue. Secondly, there have been incidents and accidents with lithium-ion batteries in air transport, in storage and transport. So, there is a lot of regulation there such as aviation regulation, shipping regulation, road transport regulation, etc. regarding the transport of lithium-ion batteries, especially when it concerns batteries that are considered waste or damaged or defective. Then you have chemical risks, or risk of fire or explosion. The product as such is not a dangerous one, but you must be careful in handling those batteries.

That’s why a lot of people in the industry stress that it should be handled only by experts and not amateurs. Removal of batteries from EVs and the dismantling of batteries must be done after a diagnosis by specialists and based on the instructions given by the battery producers or vehicle manufacturers. That is what we are trying to stress in all regulations related to safety issues regarding the handling of industrial batteries. The health and safety aspects are a very important part of the whole story around lithium-ion batteries.    

So, anyone who wishes to get involved in the sector is going to need to know a great deal about compliance. Health and safety compliance issues are a major basis for the development of this segment.

Willy Tomboy is a Belgium based Consultant on electro-mobility, circular economy, batteries and end-of-life vehicles. He is a member of the EU Commission Working Group that is part of the Batteries Europe programme, working as a sub-group leader on prospects for second life of batteries. From 2013-2019, he worked for RECHARGE, the advance rechargeable & Lithium batteries association, focusing on industrial batteries for electro-mobility. Willy has a master’s degree in Economics and in Environmental Management and he worked for 44 years in the automotive industry.   



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