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Do electric car batteries get recycled?

Here’s what Redwood learned in its first year of EV battery recycling

The company recycled 500,000 lbs of material from 1,268 EV battery packs.

Jonathan M. Gitlin — Mar 2, 2023 2:00 pm UTC

Battery recycling concept. Orange eco battery with black batteries on dark background

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In February 2022, Redwood Materials began a pilot program in California to recycle electric vehicle batteries. The startup partnered with the state government as well as Ford, Volvo, Volkswagen, and Toyota, plus the car dismantling industry, to source end-of-life lithium-ion and nickel metal hydride traction batteries. Now a year in, it has shared some findings from those first 12 months.

In total, Redwood recovered 1,268 battery packs, amounting to more than 500,000 lbs (226,796 kg). Most of these were from cars that had reached the end of their particular road—Redwood says that less than 5 percent were «damaged, defective, or recalled.»

Those packs came from 19 different EV and hybrid models, and the vast majority—82 percent in total—was lithium-ion, with the remaining 18 percent NiMH cells. Redwood says it recovered 95 percent of the lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and other metals from these packs. And as we noted last month, the company is already producing production-grade copper anode foil.

Redwood says that the main cost driver in the whole process comes down to logistics, particularly now that there are so few end-of-life EVs waiting to have their battery packs recycled. Redwood 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.»

Interestingly, Redwood says its recycling process is already profitable for smaller batteries like those in cellphones and laptops or when using production waste. It anticipates that the same will be true once EV battery packs become available for recycling at scale.

That might take some time, however. For one thing, fears that EVs would require battery replacements en masse as they reached 8 years old have proven mostly unfounded. And even once a battery is too degraded for use in a car, it can enjoy a long second life as static storage before taking a trip to the recycler.

Redwood says that it is essential that automotive OEMs work with battery recyclers capable of refining used batteries into «battery grade» metals for use in new cells. Failing to do this would lead to intermediate recycling in the US, with those materials then being sent overseas. By contrast, lithium, copper, or other metals refined from recycled batteries here in the US count as domestic supply for the new clean vehicle tax credit rules.

«The value of end-of-life batteries lies in ensuring responsible recycling, and any proposals or actions that add extra costs to the EV battery value chain will put both California and the United States at a competitive disadvantage during this critical period of transition toward clean energy and electrification,» Redwood says.

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Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group

The Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group was created to advise the Legislature on policies pertaining to the recovery and recycling of lithium-ion vehicle batteries sold with motor vehicles in the state. It is being led by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA), the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and the Department for Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). Additional members come from the environmental community, auto dismantlers, public and private representatives involved in the manufacturing, collection, processing and recycling of electric vehicle batteries, and other interested parties. The advisory group was formed in 2019 in response to Assembly Bill 2832 (Dahle, 2018).

Final Policy Recommendations

The Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group has concluded its work for which it was established and completed its final policy recommendations to the Legislature in its Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group Final Report. The final policy recommendations posted here on May 9, 2022 have been sent to the Legislature as required by AB 2832. The meetings and materials that led up to these final recommendations are available below under the Past Meetings section.

Member Organizations
  • California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA)
  • Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle)
  • Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)
  • California Energy Commission (CEC)
  • Californians Against Waste
  • Earthworks
  • Honda Trading America
  • Ford Motor Company
  • Telsa
  • Alliance for Automotive Innovation
  • California New Car Dealers Association
  • Umicore USA
  • Surplus Service
  • SA Recycling
  • Kinsbursky Brothers International
  • The Rechargeable Battery Association
  • Occupational Knowledge International
  • Sustainable Energy Solutions
  • Central Contra Costa Sanitary District
  • Southern California Association of Governments

The Importance of Recycling Lithium-ion Car Batteries

There are more than 400,000 zero emission vehicles on the road in California, and the number is growing. The lifespan of the batteries in those vehicles is estimated to be between 10 to 20 years. All batteries contain metals and other toxic or corrosive materials. They are also potentially valuable as a source of recyclable metal. When the lithium-ion batteries that power electric cars reach their end-of-life, they will need to be managed in a way that is safe for the public and the environment.

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California is home to nearly 50% of the ZEVs in the U.S.; 40% of North American clean fuel investments; 90% of total U.S. investment in clean transportation.

Image source: California’s 2017 Climate Change Scoping Plan, California Air Resources Board

Here’s what the future of battery recycling is going to look like for EV owners

GM Microvast

Big-battery manufacturing is ramping up to power EVs, but what will we do with the batteries when they’re dead? There’s a lot of money going into battery recycling companies, but equally important is how those companies actually procure the batteries in order to recycle them. Electrek spoke with Leo Raudys, the CEO of Call2Recycle, about how the Atlanta-based company closes the loop between producers, consumers, and recyclers and makes it easier to get dead e-mobility batteries into recyclers’ hands.

Electrek: What does Call2Recycle do, and how could it boost EV battery recycling in the US?

Leo Raudys: Call2Recycle is a not-for-profit organization that operates a battery stewardship, collection, logistics, and recycling program. We manage batteries ranging from rechargeable and single-use to those used to power e-bikes and electric vehicles.

Through more than 15,000 drop-off sites across the US, including municipalities and retailers like Lowe’s, The Home Depot, and Staples, we have recycled more than 140 million pounds of batteries since our inception in 1994.

As climate action and other market forces are accelerating the reliance on larger batteries that power everything from electric vehicles to power grids, we must be prepared to safely manage this influx of batteries once they reach end-of-life. Ensuring our battery recycling capacity matches the volume of batteries exiting the market requires careful planning, investment, and coordination.

Last October, for example, we announced a collaboration with Lithion Recycling in Québec, Canada, to provide a turnkey full-service management solution to safely and efficiently recycle EV batteries throughout North America. Lithion’s patented hydrometallurgical battery recycling process combined with our historical knowledge and technical expertise made it an ideal collaboration.

We’re also working with a few car companies on some pilots to manage their recalled or warranty batteries and help resolve the complex issues associated with end-of-life batteries. Essentially, Call2Recycle plays a crucial role in navigating the logistical challenges and regulatory intricacies to safely collect and transport these batteries to where they need to go to be efficiently reused or recycled. This reduces the need to mine for virgin materials and enables a more sustainable battery supply chain.

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Electrek: What are the challenges that the battery recycling industry faces, and how do you think they could be overcome?

Leo Raudys: Safety is one of the primary areas of focus right now. Rapid adoption brings its own set of safety hurdles for anyone trying to transport and recycle these technological marvels.

Large-format Li-ion batteries must comply with strict handling, storage, treatment, and disposal requirements, as well as US Department of Transportation regulations. It takes industry alignment – manufacturers, auto dealers, governments, and more – to ensure safe handling isn’t overlooked. We’ve successfully engaged with various stakeholders throughout our history to identify and solve battery recycling challenges. And we’re doing that with electric mobility to ensure there’s a system to safely collect and transport batteries when they’re ready to be repurposed or recycled.

EV batteries have a 10–13 year lifespan, so while they may not be ready to be recycled in large volumes just yet, we know they’re on the way. Companies worldwide are already investing in recycling plants to meet this demand. From our perspective, the biggest hurdle is figuring out how to create a system of shared collections across multiple original equipment manufacturers and recyclers for both cost and environmental efficiencies.

How do we safely, sustainably, and cost-efficiently get these batteries from Point A to Point B to be reused or recycled? That’s what Call2Recycle does. By advising stakeholders on the multiple regulatory and technical challenges involved in battery collections and recycling, we can establish a sustainable infrastructure to get these batteries from one point to the other.

The good news is that, despite any immediate challenges the industry is facing, the surge of these large-format batteries into the market is enabling the industry to become even more innovative. We’re already seeing a significant amount of planning going into how we’re going to manage them at the end of their lifecycles.

Electrek: What are the most efficient and sustainable recycling processes for EV batteries?

Leo Raudys: Continued investment in a circular economy and keeping recycling US-based will enable the US to be more efficient and establish a fully sustainable battery supply chain. We’re already seeing a shift in the right direction with initiatives such as President Biden’s infrastructure bill, and just this month, federal legislation was proposed relating to lithium-ion recycling and sourcing in Oregon. Transportation makes up a good chunk of the cost of recycling, as well as the emissions that are associated with shipping these batteries overseas. So, keeping it as efficient as possible is critical.

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We’re also seeing significant growth when it comes to US-based recyclers. Companies such as Redwood Materials, Li-Cycle, and Ascend Elements are just some of the recycling companies launching innovative domestic recycling technologies and processes. These recyclers are focused on reclaiming valuable materials from batteries and putting them back into our supply chain, reducing our dependence on virgin mining materials. With new technology comes more innovation and new processors, so we can expect to see even more regional and national players popping up.

Electrek: What needs to be done to make EV battery recycling more consumer friendly?

Leo Raudys: Access, awareness, and safety are key. Consumers already have the appetite to recycle, but they need to have convenient access to EV recycling options, and they need to be made aware that these options even exist.

A consumer should be able to bring their vehicle into their auto dealer, where the battery can be properly assessed, safely managed, and transported to auto dismantlers and recyclers if it has reached its end-of-life. It’s important to understand that an EV battery can go down many different paths – repair, remanufacturing, repurposing, or reselling – but at the end of the day, no matter the path, it always leads to recycling.

Continuing to focus on increased awareness on the consumer side and processing capacity on the industrial side is going to help us keep up with the number of batteries approaching end-of-life.

That’s a big part of what we do as well: crafting awareness campaigns with waste workers, as well as partnerships with recycling processors, to ensure the path to recycling is as smooth as possible and clear for all stakeholders involved.

Electrek: What processes need to be put into place to ensure safety in battery recycling?

Leo Raudys: Education and accessibility are two of the most effective tools to ensure safety, especially as batteries grow in physical size. Without the appropriate knowledge, EV batteries are more likely to be improperly handled, leading to significant safety risks. As we know, Li-ion batteries can cause dangerous fires if not handled properly, endangering waste workers, residential communities, and entire recycling facilities. Continuing to streamline guidance on collecting, transporting, and recycling these batteries for both consumers and producers will help decrease safety risks.

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The most important thing is that we all stay focused on innovation. Our future is only getting more electrified, and the batteries that are at the heart of that revolution are evolving rapidly. We’re seeing the development of new battery chemistries and sizes, and not only do we need to keep pace with those changes, we also need to anticipate them. That’s why we’re continuously collaborating with our network of manufacturers, auto recyclers, governments, and civil society partners to stay at the forefront of the battery recycling revolution.

There’s a lot of hard work ahead, but the future is bright. With continued investment in education, innovation, access, safety, regulatory stability, design, and more, the battery recycling industry is well on its way to meet the recycling needs of the future.

Leo Raudys is CEO and president of Call2Recycle, Inc. Working in partnership with its board of directors, Raudys oversees Call2Recycle’s strategic direction and overall performance of Call2Recycle through innovative, end-of-life solutions that adequately address the responsibility that comes with batteries. As an environmental and sustainability leader, Raudys has a blend of public and private experience that spans from Fortune 100 companies to government and nonprofit. Raudys also taught corporate environmental management at the University of Minnesota.

Photo: Steve Fecht/General Motors

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