- UK lacks policy framework covering entire EV battery life-cycle
- Storage leaders want UK government to support large-scale EV battery recycling
- Environmental gains of EVs ‘could be lost’ without new battery recycling policies
While driving an electric vehicle may make you feel you are doing more to limit environmental damage than the average motorist, it’s important to guard against complacency. If the battery in your EV is not recycled properly when it reaches the end of its life, there is a risk that it could cause damage to both the environment and human health.
To provide just two examples of the possible dangers, there have been warnings about batteries in landfill releasing toxic substances that could seep into water supplies, while it’s also been highlighted that lithium present in batteries can react in a volatile way when exposed, resulting in landfill fires that release toxic substances into the air.
Consequently, in order to truly realise the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, its vital that the transition to this form of transport is paired with effective recycling policies for EV batteries.
Economic benefits of EV battery recycling
The European Commission has recognised the need to encourage the wide-scale recycling of EV batteries. In December last year, the commission announced proposals to modernise EU legislation on batteries that would, for example, lead to the establishment of “targets on the content of recycled materials and collection, treatment and recycling of batteries at the end-of-life part”. Explaining its reasoning, the commission said that, in the context of EV batteries, “this would make sure that industrial, automotive or electric vehicle batteries are not lost to the economy after their useful service life.”
Meanwhile, calls for the UK government to increase levels of policy support for EV battery recycling are growing. The UK currently lacks a policy and regulatory framework that covers the EV battery life cycle in its entirety, including raw material supply, design and manufacture, safety, storage, transportation and end-of-life. Given that the UK is one of Europe’s largest electric vehicle markets – only Germany sells more EVs – this means that the UK could miss out on many benefits associated with electric vehicle battery recycling. These benefits include the increased availability of recycled batteries that could be used for energy storage systems, a decreased reliance on the importation of expensive elements such as lithium, for example, and the development of a job-creating electric vehicle recycling industry.
And as time passes, so the lost benefits will accrue. The Faraday Institution – the UK institute for electrochemical energy storage research – has estimated that approximately 16,500 tonnes of EV lithium-ion batteries will be reaching the end of their life by 2028. And that volume will increase further beyond that date.
UK risks losing benefits of transitioning to EVs
In addition, the lack of a UK policy and regulatory framework for the entire EV battery life cycle – including recycling – means there is an increased risk of potential damage to the environment and human health if used batteries are not disposed of properly. The Faraday Institution has summed up the issue facing the UK thus: “There is a danger that many of the environmental gains from the transition to EVs will be lost if the UK fails to manage the increasing volumes of EV lithium-ion batteries at the end of their useful life.”
Consequently, it’s clear that what’s needed is the development of a UK policy and regulatory framework that does cover the entire EV battery life cycle. Among the proposals put forward by energy storage experts are:
- The introduction of clear regulations and policies covering the re-use and re-purposing of EV batteries, including forms of battery ownership such as battery leasing that facilitate recycling and second-use.
- Extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations that support the move to a circular economy model, ensuring safe and effective re-use of EV batteries, with increasingly robust recycling targets.
- Eco-design criteria for recycling and remanufacturing, including restrictions on the use of hazardous substances and promotion of designs that allow easy separation of parts.
- The updating and clarification of existing waste management law in the context of EV lithium-ion batteries in order to guarantee a high standard of protection for human health and the environment.
- A strategy that would foster the development of a flourishing lithium-ion battery recycling industry.
Achieving the latter goal looks particularly challenging at present. Currently, the vast majority of end-of-life EV lithium-ion batteries in the UK are shipped to EU countries for recycling. This solution will become increasingly unsustainable as the electric vehicle market expands and more and more batteries reach end-of-life. The European Commission’s proximity principle – which states that waste should generally be managed as near as possible to its place of production – means that it seems likely that there will be increasing restrictions placed on the export of end-of-life batteries from the UK to Europe.
Doubts about likelihood of UK government support
But finding an alternative solution for EV battery recycling in the UK won’t be easy. Getting planning permission for large-scale battery recycling plants is expected to be challenging. And battery recycling does ideally need to be done at large-scale given the costs involved – high volumes of batteries need to be recycled to make projects cost-effective.
As a result, government intervention will be needed to kick start a large-scale UK battery recycling industry. However, the current UK government’s ‘free trade’ mantra means that such intervention appears to be a hope rather than an expectation at present.
UK needs policy that ‘rewards the reuse’ of batteries
But the energy storage sector – which would be a key beneficiary of a thriving UK battery recycling industry – is undeterred and is increasing its calls for the government to provide the policy support necessary. Energy storage industry executives are calling on Energy Security Secretary Grant Shapps, leader of the newly formed Department for Energy Security and Net-Zero, to prioritise battery reuse in order to achieve decarbonisation goals.
In a message sent to Shapps this week, Matthew Lumsden, CEO at Connected Energy – a supplier of battery energy storage systems that utilise second-life EV batteries – said: “Potential battery suppliers and automotive companies are redoubling their focus on second-life use to improve their sustainability credentials and revenue models. To sustain this growing momentum, we need a UK policy model that rewards the reuse of materials.”
Lumsden added that the EU Green Deal for Sustainable Batteries – which includes sustainability requirements related to recycled content – is “already driving the change we need to see”.
He continued: “Our assessment is that up to 30 per cent of batteries can be re-used in second-life energy storage systems. If we want to decarbonise, then maximising the use of the embedded carbon in existing batteries by extending their life is essential.”
It is for this reason that the UK government needs to provide more policy support for the development of an EV battery recycling industry. As electric vehicle use increases, so the cost of not having such policies will surely mount.