The Not-So-Sustainable Side of Electric Vehicles

Daniela Rakowski 

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023

Set against the backdrop of climate change and a growing global push for sustainability, more people than ever before are turning toward Electric Vehicles (EVs) as a simple swap to reduce their carbon footprint – but are EVs really more sustainable? Although they might seem more sustainable, the long-term impacts of EVs on the environment are still not entirely known. While EVs reduce fossil fuel consumption now, what happens to the battery in an EV when it dies? Can it be recycled? How are the batteries produced? All these factors contribute to an uncertainty around EVs that has governments and scientists thinking of ways to improve the sustainability of the EV industry.

What type of batteries do EVs use?

EVs use lithium-ion batteries, which consist of materials like cobalt, graphite, and lithium. These materials are considered critical minerals, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as “raw materials that are economically and strategically important to the U.S., have a high risk of their supply being disrupted, and for which there are no easy substitutes.” According to the EPA, when lithium-ion batteries are disposed of in the trash, the critical minerals they contain are lost completely.

Mining the materials required for lithium-ion batteries also raises its own concerns. Lithium mining requires massive amounts of energy and water, and often leaves behind mountains of crushed rock or large brine pits. In the United States, a new lithium mine in Nevada that was approved during the final days of the Trump administration is facing opposition from local environmentalists, ranchers, and the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe. Mining the materials required to produce lithium-ion batteries abroad often involves sourcing from nations with poor environmental oversight and low regulation of labor standards, as well as a history of conflict between mining operations and local communities. 

By the end of 2020 there were 10 million EVs on the road globally, and International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that there will be upwards of 145 million EVs by 2030. Rapid growth in the EV industry will lead to a surge in demand for batteries to power the growing number of EVs, making the environmental concerns around sourcing components for batteries even more pressing. Recycling lithium-ion batteries would help alleviate some of these concerns, but recycling the batteries presents its own set of challenges.

How can lithium-ion batteries be recycled, and why is battery recycling important?

Lithium-ion batteries such as those used in EVs cannot be recycled in the same manner as the single-use batteries most of us are familiar with. The battery packs in EVs consist of hundreds or thousands of individual lithium-ion batteries that get bundled together to form the battery pack needed to power an EV. Currently available recycling methods are fairly crude, often consisting of the modules being shredded and thrown into a furnace, which allows the lighter materials like lithium and manganese to burn, leaving behind an alloy slurry consisting of higher-value metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt, which can then be purified out of the allow using strong acids. This process requires large amounts of energy and produces toxic gases and waste products that need to be recaptured. However, certain mineral processing wastes, such as slag from primary copper processing, are excluded from EPA regulations on how to properly dispose of these materials. Other materials may be regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Further, the process essentially only allows for recovery of cobalt and nickel, as the recovered lithium is often not a suitable quality for making new batteries.

As mentioned, mining the minerals required to construct a lithium-ion battery is a labor and environmentally intensive process, and the minerals are lost completely if not recovered in some form of recycling. When considering the current and growing demand for EVs, recycling batteries becomes a critical factor in both mitigating the damaging environmental impact of battery production and waste but also essential in simply meeting the demand for EVs. Without recycling, the surge in demand is estimated to result in eight million tons of battery waste ending up in landfills by 2040. A recent study found that recycling old batteries could, by 2040, reduce the projected demand for copper by fifty-five percent, for  cobalt and nickel by thirty-five percent, and for lithium by twenty-five percent.

In order to meet the demand for EVs and the component parts required for batteries, the goal is to develop a circular economy, wherein the lithium-ion batteries are reused and recycled for years to come. Multiple companies are working to develop new ways to recycle the component parts of lithium-ion batteries in the most efficient manner, such as Redwood Materials in Nevada, led by former Tesla executives, Northvolt in Europe, and Li-Cycle in Toronto.

Are there measures in place to assist owners in recycling used batteries?

In the U.S., there are currently no federal laws requiring EV battery recycling or mandating EV producers or manufacturers to take back batteries from owners. This stands in contrast to countries like China, which imposed new rules in 2018 designed to promote the reuse of EV battery components, or the EU, which released rules on management of end-of-life batteries, delineating specific takeback and recycling requirements for EV batteries.

Although there is no current federal law, some states, have taken independent measures to address the growing need for EV battery recycling programs. The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) is leading the Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group, which was created to advise the legislature on policies relating to lithium-ion battery recycling, and is currently seeking public comment on a draft of policy recommendations. Massachusetts and New York have also established study groups to explore recovery and recycling options.

As is common with developing technologies, there are no explicit regulations set to govern the lifecycle of lithium-ion batteries for use in EVs. Individual states are expected to act faster than federal regulators on EV battery policies, making it imperative that those seeking guidance on how to best dispose of EV batteries first consult with the policies within their state.