A circular economy approach in which batteries are recycled or repurposed could reduce raw material demand by nearly two-thirds while strengthening supply chains for electric vehicle manufacturers, the Rocky Mountain Institute concludes in a new analysis.
“By repurposing and recycling EV batteries, we can decrease our reliance on virgin materials and negative community impacts associated with their extraction,” writes Marie McNamara, a senior associate in RMI’s India program. “We will also reduce the risk of supply chain interruptions due to changing trade alliances, geopolitics, and extreme weather.”
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But to make it happen, countries will need harmonized, global supply chain rules and regulations, a clear approach to traceability for the entire supply chain, and details on how companies can track their compliance, McNamara says. Without those steps, EV batteries “can be associated with human rights abuses and environmental degradation, vulnerable to disruption, and unable to meet growing EV demand.”
RMI points to the current economic incentive for “linear processes” in which it’s cheaper to mine for minerals to produce new batteries rather than recycling them. “The economics of recycling vary greatly based on the material composition of the battery and the related market value of constituent minerals,” McNamara explains. But “if it takes place at all, most recycling seeks to recover higher value nickel, cobalt, and lithium.”
With the right frameworks for battery circularities, “recycling and repurposing used EV batteries can become self-sustaining or even profitable,” she adds. “Without effective battery circularity polices, this market could go the way of plastic recycling, which, in the United States, is currently at 8%,” mostly due to inadequate regulation.
The RMI analysis lays out five essential components of a global battery circularity plan:
• Supply chain traceability to make it clear where raw materials come from;
• A more nuanced approach to material labelling, transport, and storage, at a time when batteries’ one-size-fits-all classification as hazardous materials accounts for 40 to 60% of recycling costs;
• Designing and building batteries with ease of recycling in mind;
• Recycling enough batteries to reduce the demand for raw materials by up to 64% by 2050;
• Upgrading EV batteries for reuse in stationary storage.
To deliver on that potential, “well-thought-out policies are required to successfully create a circular battery economy,” McNamara writes. “Without policy, industry stakeholders are not likely to prioritize or invest in recycling and repurposing efforts.”