Traditional lead-acid batteries used in vehicles could be recycled viably and in an environmentally sound manner, but it was “a completely different story” for spent lithium-ion batteries which were expected to flood into the market over the coming decades, stated Dr Alvaro Rodríguez de Sanabria, Senior Public Policy Manager Spain for e-bike and e-scooter start-up VOI Technology, in his guest presentation to the BIR E-Scrap Committee meeting in Barcelona on May 24.
Although thermal and hydrometallurgical recycling solutions were already available, the cost of extracting the various ingredients – which included cobalt, manganese and nickel, as well as lithium – was greater than their combined value. Extended producer responsibility represented “the only solution” to this challenge, he went on to argue.
The guest speaker underlined the importance of discussions to ensure an outcome that benefitted all parties given that the global population of e-cars alone was expected to multiply by a factor of ten over the next five years and to around 550 million by 2040. Electronic scooters, bikes, buses and other vehicles would add hugely to the volume of batteries ultimately requiring a recycling solution, he pointed out.
During a question-and-answer session in which comment was made about the fire-risk and insurance burdens imposed by lithium-ion batteries, Andy Wahl of TAV Holdings Inc. in the USA argued that producer responsibility should extend to the design-for-recycling stage. Mr Rodríguez de Sanabria agreed that recyclers should be part of a collaborative approach so that their concerns were considered by manufacturers and the authorities rather than being regarded simply as “the end of the pipe”.
Jan Visser of Mirec Benelux (part of Remondis/TSR), Interim Chairman of the BIR E-Scrap Committee following the retirement of Dr Helmut Kolba, had opened the meeting by stating that global e-waste volumes were expected to jump some 30% to around 75 million tonnes by 2030. Only 55% of WEEE in Europe was reported as officially collected and responsibly recycled and so “there is still a lot of work to do”, he acknowledged.
While the variety of electronic devices was expanding, the average weight was dropping as a result of the trends towards miniaturization and increased multi-functionality – “and so you need to collect more appliances to keep the same tonnage”, said Mr Visser. Miniaturization was also leading to a larger proportion being consigned to domestic waste bins rather than being fed into recycling channels. Furthermore, greater use of glues for waterproofing devices was “nice for the user, but for the recycler it’s a disaster because we need to get the battery out to recycle it”.
There was nowhere near sufficient recycling capacity in Europe for WEEE plastics but the necessary investment was unlikely to be forthcoming if thresholds for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) continued to change. Lowering the thresholds for POP brominated flame retardants would drive more material into “undocumented streams” and thus run counter to the objective of a more circular economy, Mr Visser argued.