As electric vehicle (EV) policies are implemented around the country, and sales continue to rise, a question many ask is if vehicle batteries are recycled.
Yes, EV battery recycling is happening in facilities around the United States. The materials recovered, including cobalt, nickel, lithium, and manganese, can be used in the manufacturing of new batteries. While this recycling market is growing, there is still no federal or state law or policy that requires it – an obligation that could ensure higher recycling rates and increased efficiency.
California is taking steps to change that.
In 2019, the state convened a group of experts and stakeholders – thanks to Assembly Bill 2832 – to develop policy recommendations that would increase EV battery recycling. That stakeholder group informed a recently released report containing policy recommendations for the state.
The report outlines a package of policies that could become the first lithium-ion US battery recycling regulation – including producer responsibility for battery recycling. While this is a huge win for those of us who want to see batteries recycled, there were also a handful of policies that could make incredible strides towards increasing the sustainability of batteries but weren’t recommended.
I had the privilege of cofacilitating this group with my colleagues at the University of California, Davis along with some dedicated people at CalRecycle and the Department of Toxic Substance Control. So let me provide a (very) brief summary of the policy recommendations and some insights I gleaned.
Who were the members of the Advisory Group?
The Advisory Group had a final count of 19 members and consisted of representatives from the automotive and battery industries (6 members), waste industry (5 members), public interest organizations (3 members), and government agencies (5 members).
The final policy recommendations were based on a group vote which the government agency representatives recused themselves from. The voting members were, therefore, industry-leaning, with the automotive and battery industry representing 43% of members, the waste industry representing 36%, and the public interest organizations representing 21%. Each policy had to receive an affirmative vote by at least 50% of the group to be included as a recommendation in the report.
Did the group propose recycling requirements?
The group recommended that battery recycling be a requirement in the state and defined the party responsible for covering the costs of transporting and recycling batteries once a vehicle is retired. If this type of policy is passed it could be a great step towards increasing EV battery recycling.
Two policy options to determine the responsible party were proposed. The first says it should be the EV manufacturer (that is, the automaker like Ford or Tesla) who is responsible for ensuring their vehicles’ batteries are recycled when the car or truck is no longer on the road. This policy, called extended producer responsibility, was recommended with 67% support from voting members. The automotive companies were the only members to not support this policy, although Tesla was the outlier and in favor of this policy option.
The second option received a greater level of support at 93%. All members voted in favor of this policy, except Tesla who abstained. This second policy option defines the EV manufacturer or an automotive dismantler as the responsible party, depending on a few important factors. These factors require some nuanced knowledge about what happens to a car when it is retired under different circumstances, such as if the vehicle fails under warranty, if it needs the battery to be replaced while out of warranty, or if it crashes or ages out of usefulness. The most common route of retirement is from crashing or getting old, so that will be the version of this policy explained here.
The proposed policy states that if the automotive dismantler (also known as an automotive recycler) acquires the EV and removes the battery, the dismantler is now responsible for making sure the battery is recycled.
To provide some background, after a car is retired, it typically goes to an automotive dismantler. These are certified facilities that take cars apart to sell the parts for reuse or recycling. The disassembly of EVs is very different from the disassembly of gasoline vehicles, therefore new equipment, training, and recycling partners are necessary for dismantlers to handle this new type of vehicle. These dismantlers range from small businesses to corporations, and their trade group, the United Recyclers Group, alone represents over 800 businesses in North America.
An automaker representative explained in an Advisory Group meeting that they support this policy instead of option 1 due to the potential value of the used EV. Batteries contain valuable materials like cobalt, nickel, and lithium, but some battery chemistries contain more of the valuable materials than others. If the dismantler disassembles the EV and does not want the remaining battery, it is likely the battery has a chemistry that is of lower value and will therefore be a burden to get rid of, instead of a net benefit. So, the auto manufacturer is essentially making sure they do not risk being responsible for an EV that has already been picked apart for valuable pieces and then left with a product that will be costly to dispose of.
What other policies were recommended?
There were three other areas that the advisory group recommended policies: increased access to information, support for industry development, and safe and efficient reverse logistics.
Providing access to battery information while the battery is in the car and after it is removed is crucial to enable efficient and safe reuse, repurposing, and recycling. It was recommended that a label for batteries be required on all EVs and that it include information such as chemistry, capacity, and automotive manufacturer. Labeling EV batteries is not currently a common practice and makes it difficult to sort the batteries and evaluate the cost (or revenue) of recycling.
In addition to a label, the group recommended vehicle owners – whether that be an ordinary EV driver like you or me, or the dismantler who took the car after it was retired – have access to their battery’s state of health information, or in other words, the leftover capacity and reusability of the battery. This is important in determining if the battery should be reused or repurposed, or if it should be sent directly to recycling. Since this information is not easily accessible, batteries must be fully tested through a full charge and discharge to know the battery’s health. This is a time-consuming and expensive process that can be greatly improved by the sharing of information.
The Advisory Group recommended several policies which would support repurposing and recycling industry development. These policies include recycling incentive packages, expanding grid stationary storage incentives to include repurposed batteries, and expediting the permitting process for recycling facilities in California.
Most policies recommended by the group fell under the safe and efficient reverse logistics category. The group recognized that the high cost of transporting batteries after they have been removed from a vehicle is a large barrier to efficient and cost-effective recycling, representing 50-60% of costs. Some of the reverse logistics policies recommended include supporting research on collection and sorting networks, developing training materials for workers, lessening regulatory barriers to reusing or repurposing transporting batteries, and increasing regulations on EVs sold at auction.