Recycling batteries could reduce the need to mine critical minerals – but only if the packs are properly recovered.
The race to electrify the world’s vehicles and store energy will require batteries — so many of them, in fact, that meeting the demand we will see by 2040 will require 30 times the amount of critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel that those industries currently use.
That presents an enormous challenge, one exacerbated by the mining industry’s alarming allegations of labor crimes, environmental destruction, and encroachments on Indigenous land. There are ways to mitigate electrification’s extractive impacts, one of which may seem obvious: Recycle every battery we make.
Doing so would reduce the world’s need to mine these minerals by 10 percent within 16 years, because the critical materials in batteries are infinitely reusable. Eventually, a robust circular battery economy could all but eliminate the need to extract them at all.
Of course, that would require recovering every EV pack at the end of its life, a sizable undertaking as the United States prepares for hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles to retire by the end of the decade. A nascent ecosystem of startups is working toward that goal, and the Inflation Reduction Act includes tax credits to incentivize the practice. But some electrification advocates say those steps do not go far enough. While the European Union recently passed a regulation mandating EV battery recycling, there is no such law in the U.S. Proponents of a federal recycling standard say that without one, batteries that could be recycled might get left behind, increasing the need for mining and undermining electrification’s environmental benefits.
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