Battery metals require responsible recyclers
Wasteful consumerism is gone, time to shore up recycling Critical Minerals Alliances 2023 - September 12, 2023
Last updated 9/13/2023 at 4:45pm
Separating your plastics, paper, metals, and food waste has generally been a personal choice throughout most of modern recycling history. However, current demand for resources predicts we won't have enough to support net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Hence, now is the best time for consumers to become educated and self-determined with their buying power, manufacturers to begin considering recycling as part of the initial design, and a new circular economy that resurrects a tradition that supported America at its lowest point.
Before industrialization, recycling was practiced in ways far removed from what it is known as today – and people were much better at it.
If the elbows in a shirt wore out, you'd take the sleeves off, turn them inside out, and presto: new shirt. If a dress went out of style, you added new buttons or sent it to the dressmaker to fashion a trendier frock.
People would whittle down their possessions, maximizing the use of each item until nothing remained but rags and scrap.
"Before there was municipal solid waste disposal, stuff would pile up in your house if you didn't reuse it," said Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. "In addition, people who made things had an understanding of the value of material goods that we don't have at all. Literally, if everything you wore, sat on, or used in your house was something you made or your mother or uncle or the guy down the street made, you had a very different sense of value of material goods."
With the present global transition to low-carbon energy and transportation, this offers a once-in-a-century opportunity and maybe a planet-saving practice to rethink how products are manufactured in a direction that favors reuse and reignites a way of life that carried Americans through the dark times of depression and war.
It was tradition
When garbage pickup started in the late 19th century, many cities separated reusable trash from garbage designated for the landfill. Just like today, workers sorted via conveyor belts as early as 1905. Afterward, cities sold reusable trash to industries while people saved their food waste to feed their livestock.
But by the 1920s, source separation was no longer happening and not much was being recycled apart from metal at scrapyards.
"But really there was a relatively short period of time that people didn't recycle," Strasser said.
It truly was a short period, as America soon faced its hardest economic downturn in history – the Great Depression. With no choice but to stretch material goods as far as they could go, and sometimes farther, reuse of what you had was the only option.
And that frugality and ingenuity carried the United States straight on into World War II – while devastating and horrific, mobilization of the people toward a common goal is what lifted the fog.
Millions of men and women joined the armed forces, and even larger numbers went to work in well-paying defense jobs. Yet all those who lived through the Great Depression carried with them a knack for scavenging.
It wouldn't be until closer to the 1960s that the first recycling programs began to link with people's concern for the environment.
"As the environmental movement begins to take hold on a national scale, recycling was seen as a personal manifestation of helping the environment," said Martin Melosi, author of Fresh Kills: A History of Consuming and Discarding in New York City. "There was a sense of connection to the environment."
Beyond the do-gooders, though, most people in the throw-away society of the time didn't think too much about preservation or reducing use – until landfills started filling up in the 1970s.
"Landfilling was the most popular form of disposal after World War II," Melosi said, and recycling was a way to reduce the tipping point. "It takes things out of the waste stream, preserving landfill space. So recycling begins to have an economic and strategic role, different from just saving the environment."
Due to the potential ramifications of overfull landfills, it prompted recycling to be viewed through an economic lens. Although not as altruistic as most would hope, leaning into the system can sometimes be a solution – and recycling of all things electronic and reclaiming decades of resource waste for future clean energy is looking to be pretty viable, even if it is to support capitalism instead of the environment.
Although, in this case, it will do both.
"They don't make them like they used to," perhaps a familiar expression as vehicles, appliances, devices, clothing, equipment, gear, tools, etc., just feel like they don't have the same longevity or durability as the ruggedly built, made-to-last products of yesteryear.
While there is some truth to this, it is certainly not across the board, as technology has improved to the point where many of today's products are in a league of their own. However, entering into the digital age, a concept that not many are aware of has perhaps crept up to bite.
Planned obsolescence – this describes the practice of designing and manufacturing products intended to break or degrade quickly or become obsolete in the short to mid-term. The general idea behind this is to encourage sales of new products and upgrades.
Although banned in some countries, there are no laws against planned obsolescence in the U.S.
However, is this really the case?
The answer: yes, but not how one might think. Beyond the simple caricature of greedy companies wantonly fleecing their customers, another impetus for quickly replacing goods rests at the feet of the consumers as well.
To an extent, planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of businesses giving people the goods they desire. In this way, it serves as a reflection of a ravenous consumer culture that industries did create for their benefit, yet are hardly alone in doing so.
"Fundamentally, firms are reacting to the tastes of the consumers," said Judith Chevalier, a professor of finance and economics at Yale University. "I think there are some avenues where [businesses] are kind of tricking the consumer, but I think there are also situations where I might put the fault on the consumer."
So, if some responsibility lay at the feet of consumers, if there was ever a time to impose buying power, it would be now. And to help enforce sustainability, especially concerning recycling, the European Council initiated groundbreaking legislation that takes the wastefulness from consumers and imposes manufacturers to be the bigger man.
EUs battery recycling law
Announced early July, the Council of the European Union adopted a new regulation that could possibly cut out the concern for planned obsolescence by strengthening sustainability for batteries, in particular, portable batteries often found in consumer products like cell phones.
Toward the ultimate goal of a circular economy, this landmark legislation sets a precedent in the standards that should be taken in a recycling-led GDP. These include:
• The regulation sets targets for producers to collect waste portable batteries (63% by the end of 2027 and 73% by the end of 2030) and introduces a dedicated collection objective for waste batteries for light means of transport (51% by the end of 2028 and 61% by the end of 2031).
• The regulation sets a target for lithium recovery from waste batteries of 50% by the end of 2027 and 80% by the end of 2031, which can be amended through delegated acts depending on market and technological developments and the availability of lithium.
• The regulation provides for mandatory minimum levels of recycled content for industrial, SLI batteries and EV batteries. These are initially set at 16% for cobalt, 85% for lead, 6% for lithium and 6% for nickel. Batteries will have to hold recycled content documentation.
• The recycling efficiency target for nickel-cadmium batteries is set at 80% by the end of 2025 and 50% by the end of 2025 for other waste batteries.
• The regulation provides that by 2027 portable batteries incorporated into appliances should be removable and replaceable by the end-user, leaving sufficient time for operators to adapt the design of their products to this requirement. This is an important provision for consumers.
The last point is perhaps the most impactful and has made several headlines for its precedent toward manufacturers such as Apple that have been notorious for phones becoming more and more difficult over the years to repair – favoring full replacement.
And with phones costing upwards the same as laptops, it is not a sustainable long-term model.
Hence, to curb waste and inefficient resource use in the form of new models each year, the EU legislation aims to steer manufacturers back to a time when fully realized products that can stand the test of time will be built once again.
The regulation of the European Parliament and the Council will apply to all batteries, including all waste portable batteries, electric vehicle batteries, industrial batteries, starting, lightning and ignition (SLI) batteries (used mostly for vehicles and machinery) and batteries for light means of transport (e.g., electric bikes, e-mopeds, e-scooters).
The battery recycling front lines
In North America, a handful of companies have broken away from the rest with completed facilities that have begun to recycle and produce battery-grade materials.
With no legislation yet that matches the stringent regulations like those of the European Parliament, these companies have taken it upon themselves to fill in for a market that is sure to become the keystone for a circular economy.
Founded in 2017 by Tesla co-founder JB Straubel, Redwood Materials Inc is a forward-thinking company that has been ahead of the curve in recycling as a means to meet the monumental challenge of supplying the demand for lithium-ion battery material in the West.
Having already formed partnerships with Ford Motors, Volkswagen, and Toyota, it is evident that what Redwood can provide has enticed these legacy automakers, especially considering they are at the forefront of the demand. The initial frontrunner of battery recycling in North America, Electra Battery Materials Corp., has already successfully shipped its first deliveries of recycled nickel-cobalt from its refinery complex north of Toronto, Canada.
Coming a long way since its acquisition of the Yukon cobalt refinery in 2017, this company has quickly gained traction as the likely leading provider of the critical minerals and metals that will fuel a zero-carbon future.
Settling into an already fully permitted processing facility in Ontario that once operated between 1996 and 2015, over the following years, the company has steadily advanced into an operation that will be capable of producing roughly 5,000 metric tons of battery-grade cobalt sulfate each year.
Located less than 400 miles (640 kilometers) from Great Lakes manufacturing towns such as Detroit and Buffalo, this rail-accessible refinery has garnered strong interest from battery and automotive manufacturers seeking a secure and sustainable supply of this controversial battery metal.
With the first mover advantage of the first cobalt sulfate refinery in North America, Electra has quickly carved itself a position in the low-carbon energy and transportation transition for years to come. And with plans to expand into alternate recycling technologies, such as solvometallurgy, as well as black mass material recovery, Electra is well on its way to helping the West break away from its reliance on the East.
Another big name in the burgeoning EV battery recycling sector, Li-Cycle Holdings Corp. made headlines multiple times with visits from Heads of State, first with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, then U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Senator Mark Kelly, D-AZ, later Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Ursula von der Leyen, then finally Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs.
With such an all-star lineup, there must be something to this battery recycler. Established similarly in Ontario, Li-Cycle has thus opened facilities in New York and Arizona, with many more to follow that will centralize its recycling technologies through its Spoke and Hub method.
The spokes are the distributed network of how it takes in all types of lithium-ion batteries and transforms them into an inert product that is shredded and separated. In comparison, the hub is the centralized operation. With 12 possible spokes to every hub, Li-Cycle will convert black mass directly to battery-grade chemicals and use a non-thermal process that purifies the materials to transform them back into ready battery-grade materials for future lithium-ion batteries.
In March, Li-Cycle was conditionally approved through the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program for a loan of $375 million to expand its recycling efforts. This follows a mid-2022 $200 million loan from Glencore.
With support from federal and private entity giants, its technology has proven to be something worth exploring.
Keeping in lockstep, American Battery Technology Metals has also drawn the interest of dignitaries. White House representatives from the National Science Foundation and Office of Science and Technology Policy, the site visit was to highlight the company's capabilities and progress.
Founded in 2011, ABTC began with a few mining claims out of Nevada. Much like Redwood, the company was spun out by a former Tesla employee seeking a means of providing lithium-ion batteries for the famed EVs; it turned out that this foresight proved astute.
Recognizing the severity of delivering domestic supplies of the lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese needed not just in EVs but in solar panels, wind turbines, and battery storage systems, ABTC broadened its business to more than just primary battery metals manufacturing but also into lithium-ion recycling.
With ample funding due to its promising recycling technology, a ready-made facility for the company to begin operations, a pre-commercial building under construction, and an agreement for pre-purchase of its future product, ABTC is proving its foresight was not just a one-off and is preparing to provide America with ABTC battery materials.
As a pioneer in lithium-ion battery cathode recycling, British Columbia-based RecycLiCo Battery Materials Inc. (previously American Manganese Inc.) has quickly grasped the dilemma of future battery materials scarcity and has developed an incredible solution that allows its patented RecycLiCo process to upcycle old cathodes to the new chemistries being used in today's batteries powering EVs.
Peer-reviewed, third-party analyzed, and stringently verified, each assessment has continued to verify the legitimacy of RecycLiCo's recycling technology.
In one of its numerous assessments, London-based and globally recognized sustainability consultancy Minviro Ltd. determined that RecycLiCo's process resulted in a 35% reduction in CO2-equivalent emissions for nickel-manganese-cobalt precursor production and a 74% reduction in lithium hydroxide production compared to the raw mining of these materials.
In addition to its emission-reduction capabilities, the process itself has been found to be extremely effective, retaining 99% of the lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt from the resulting black mass of ground-up batteries.
Furthermore, through scanning electron microscopy imagery, it has been shown that example products from RecycLiCo's recycling share the same high-quality technical specifications – such as particle morphology, size, and distribution – found in conventional lithium-ion battery cathode precursor materials produced from mined raw materials.
As the trailblazers of a future where your current phone, laptop, television, monitor, and everything else electronic can be taken in and the elements they are made from reformed into EVs and the batteries that power them, these companies are charting the way for a next generation of industry.
And hopefully, the effects of recycling will be felt individually rather than on the scale of just "helping the environment" when that clearly had never truly been the case.