electric car charging battery

Electric Vehicle Batteries Pose Powerful Recycling Challenge

By Kim Tyrrell | July 8, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Hitting the market just a decade ago, electric vehicles now number more than 1.2 million in the United States, a number predicted to rise to more than 18 million by 2030. Each electric vehicle has a large battery pack, typically lithium-ion, that will eventually reach the end of its useful life. On average, that’s around 200,000 miles, which is nearly 17 years in a car driven 12,000 miles annually, according to estimates by Consumer Reports.

While not immediate, this waste stream is imminent, and state lawmakers are already developing a variety of policy options to manage it. At least three states—California, Massachusetts and New York—have set up study groups to explore options on the recovery, safe handling and recycling of lithium-ion batteries.

Of concern is the improper handling of these energy-dense, high-voltage power sources, which contain organic electrolytes (instead of water), making them almost bomb-like when damaged. They have caused catastrophic fires at recycling centers in California, New York, Indiana and elsewhere after being mixed with other recyclables and dumped in landfills. To prevent such fires, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation prohibiting lithium-ion batteries from being mixed with other recyclables or dumped in landfills. A similar measure is pending in California.

The federal government has heeded concerns, as well. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the ReCell Center to develop sustainable, economic and environmentally sound processes that could be adopted by the battery recycling industry. Current recycling methods are expensive and recover relatively little of the useful material in discarded lithium-ion batteries. The department also launched a $5.5 million competition, with the top prize going to whoever develops a way to profitably recover at least 90% of the batteries’ useful material.

As the number of spent vehicle batteries in the waste stream increases in the next few years, we are likely to see more states exploring ways to ensure they can be recycled safely and efficiently.

Kim Tyrrell is a program director in NCSL's Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.

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