Car battery recycling: Staying in charge

Car battery recycling: Staying in charge

Car batteries work by converting chemical energy into electrical energy. When a battery reaches the end of its life, none of these chemicals go away. The spent battery remains a cocktail of dangerous but also potentially useful substances.

Before the laws tightened on battery recycling, much of it ended up in landfill. These days, in the UK and across the world, there is a concerted legal and regulatory effort to recycle batteries and use their component resources wisely. However, many challenges still have to be overcome before the future of car battery recycling becomes sustainable. And the rise of electric cars adds another element of complexity to the mix.

The importance of battery recycling

In standard car batteries, known as wet cell batteries, the chemicals that perform their electrical alchemy are lead dioxide and sulphuric acid. In addition, these batteries include trace amounts of silver, a hard plastic casing and one more essential ingredient to push the whole process along — water.

The effort that goes into car battery recycling makes a whole lot of sense when considering the long-term impacts of dumping car batteries into landfill. In a waste dump, a car battery will eventually break down, allowing highly acidic water and elemental lead to seep into the ground, finding their way into groundwater and waterways.

The acid is harmful to plant life and the elemental lead is a potent neurotoxin which has the potential, in the environment, to work its way up the food chain until it affects humans. Lead is particularly devastating to children and can cause a long list of chronic health problems, even stunting intellectual development.

On top of this smorgasbord of nastiness, without recycled battery components available to turn into new car batteries, the production process uses up more natural resources and creates ever more waste: it becomes a vicious cycle.

The process of recycling all the different elements in car batteries is labour intensive and highly hazardous. After a crusher breaks a batch of spent batteries into a chunky slurry of battery bits, the lead, silver, acidic water and plastic are all separated.

The acid in the water is neutralised chemically and the remaining water is purified. The lead and silver are melted down into bars for reuse as battery components. The plastic is melted down into pellets, which will be used to recast new battery cases.

The whole process is expensive and time-consuming, but at the end of it, the release of harmful chemicals into the environment is kept to a bare minimum.

Laws surrounding car battery disposal

In 2006, the EU Batteries Directive (Directive 2006/66/EC) was passed, setting out targets and requirements for the recycling of all battery types in the EU. In 2008 and 2009, these requirements were transposed into UK law. In 2010, a set of strict regulations came into effect, governing consumer and producer obligations for handling car batteries.

The most significant law for consumers was that a blanket ban was placed on car batteries being disposed of through landfill or incineration. It is also the responsibility of the battery owner by law to ensure that spent car batteries are collected and handled by approved treatment facilities. For the most part, this entails contacting the car manufacturer to handle proper battery disposal.
For producers, battery recycling laws in the UK are are quite stringent. However, in the case of car batteries the legislation recognised that a large proportion of car batteries were already being collected by producers and recycled.

Nevertheless, all producers placing batteries onto the UK market must register directly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). They should take back spent batteries with no additional cost to the consumer and within a reasonable amount of time. They’re also required to publish details on how end users can participate in battery return programs.

Car battery recycling: Staying in charge

Future car battery recycling challenges

While the UK legal framework and industrial processes for conventional car battery recycling are well-established, a huge battery recycling challenge lies just around the corner.

By 2025, it’s estimated that up to 90 per cent of the market for lithium ion batteries will come from electric and hybrid vehicles. Inevitably, over the next few years, we’ll begin to see a huge influx of more complex and volatile batteries hitting recycling plants.

While electric vehicle batteries will be covered under the same law (with a complete prohibition in effect on their disposal through landfill or incineration), how to actually recycle them efficiently is a much more difficult question to answer.

Electric car batteries are far more complex than their conventional lead acid counterparts, containing different potential combinations of metals alongside lithium including cobalt, manganese, nickel and aluminium – meaning recycling plants are currently ill-equipped to handle them.

Despite the challenges, companies are investing heavily in finding workable solutions. For example, Belgian multinational materials processing giant Umicore recently invested £22.6 million in an industrial plant which will extract cobalt and other rare minerals from Tesla and Toyota electric car batteries.

More novel solutions aimed at completely redesigning the battery recycling process will also soon be available. Canadian startup Li-Cycle is just one of many innovators in a technological race to develop low cost, automated processes for recycling every part of a lithium-ion battery.

Recycling processes for electric car batteries are going to challenge the recycling industry in the years to come, and there is little doubt it will take some time for legislation and technology to catch up. However, we’re a lot closer to a solution than just a few years ago.

Car battery recycling is a difficult and resource intensive process but it’s vastly preferable to the alternative: valuable resources slowly leaching away while simultaneously poisoning our environment.

While the UK has a strong regulatory and technological foundation for handling conventional car batteries, the next few years are going to introduce some critical challenges. If we are to continue our commitment to lessening our collective eco-footprint, legislation and recycling processes will need to continue to evolve.

Guest writer Giles Kirkland is an environmentally conscious car expert with passion for combining the newest green technologies with a healthy lifestyle. Apart from commenting on the latest automotive innovations, he enjoys sharing his knowledge with other drivers and sustainable living enthusiasts. You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, and at Oponeo.