As Canary Media reported in its recent Recycling Renewables series, the increasing adoption of EVs around the globe is a huge milestone in the effort to decarbonize transportation. But it brings with it another problem that the world needs to prepare for: mounting EV battery waste. Technical innovation is starting to drive down the costs of lithium-ion battery recycling, but government intervention is necessary to catalyze a robust system for reusing and recycling the batteries.
Currently, the U.S. has no federal recycling mandate or recycled content requirements for lithium-ion batteries. While some regulations — such as the Department of Transportation’s Hazardous Materials Regulations and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act — govern the transportation and disposal of hazardous materials (which lithium-ion batteries are sometimes considered to be), implementation and enforcement vary widely across states. Together, these two factors — a lack of federal leadership on recycling and a patchwork approach to regulating lithium-ion batteries — have inhibited U.S. progress on sustainable and secure battery life-cycle management.
California has taken aim at these problems by launching a first-of-its-kind group to gather stakeholder feedback and recommend policies around lithium-ion battery life-cycle management for electric vehicles. Assembly Bill 2832, which was passed in 2018, created the Lithium-Ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group to craft recommendations “aimed at ensuring that as close to 100 percent as possible of lithium-ion vehicle batteries in the state are reused or recycled at end-of-life in a safe and cost-effective manner.” Over the past two and a half years, 19 members representing automakers, recyclers, government agencies, civil society groups and other entities have worked to identify barriers to this goal and researched different policies that could facilitate the reuse, repurposing and recycling of batteries. The group submitted its policy recommendations to the legislature in May 2022.
Proposals that received strong support from the advisory group include measures to facilitate the reuse of EV batteries, improve access to information about individual batteries (such as their chemistry, condition and origins), reduce costs of battery transport, and develop collection and sorting infrastructure. The recommendations could make their way into California’s 2023 legislative session, and if some of them are adopted, they may provide a useful roadmap for the rest of the country on how to manage and recycle lithium-ion batteries at the end of their useful lives.
But California — and the U.S. more broadly — still faces an uphill battle when it comes to aligning with global standards for battery recycling. Even if fully implemented, the group’s recommendations do not bring the state in line with other jurisdictions such as the European Union, where stricter legislation may penalize entities that fail to comply.