If anything is not economic to recycle, we have always dumped it in landfill with a pretence we had no choice.
All landfill activity is known to be a last resort, but landfills are growing around the globe despite that. We are horrified to smell and see them. Only desperately poor people seek them out to scavenge on them, along with rodents and birds.
Around the home we use many batteries. I tend to use Duracell and, as producers, they emphasise their batteries MUST NOT end up in landfill. But many people carelessly toss their old batteries in to landfill rubbish bags.
Many of us are familiar with all the toxins which seep into the ground and then are carried by groundwater to the rivers, then the sea. In the case of lithium batteries in everyday household products, we see the warning on the packaging to NOT DISPOSE IN LANDFILL waste. So many of us dutifully place the dangerous item carefully in a container, ready to take to the Recycling Centre near our home. We then place the batteries we have collected in the household battery section, along with all the new technology lightbulbs which are also dangerous and must be recycled carefully. We trust, as we have done our part, we have an efficient system which recycles the batteries carefully and ensures they do not end up in the ‘last resort’ of landfill. But to our horror, invariably we see that most of these household lithium batteries are thrown by householders into the trash, thoughtlessly, with the added toxic harm and explosion danger, we know exists and will permeate our local environment and groundwater.
The new lithium car batteries are a different matter. We know they will soon be made in vast quantities, and China is well ahead in making most of them for their many electric vehicles which are common in their country. They know from experience that a lithium car battery, when it has been used to the end of its life for a car, still has 70 percent life left to be repurposed, and they have become adept at coming up with highly useful repurposing uses.
We now have the dilemma of dealing with a growing imminent problem of lithium car batteries in the UK.
This as a user friendly explanation:
Lithium car batteries, on the other hand, have much more complicated chemistries and a mix of materials that don’t work and play well together in an industrial recycling process. A lithium-ion battery is not just lithium but also has cobalt, manganese, iron phosphate, or nickel compounds, not to mention aluminum, copper, and graphite. Not only is the mix of metals more complicated, but their physical form as powders coated onto metal foil makes recovery of each component far more complicated than just throwing it in a furnace.
The electrolyte in a lithium battery is much more complicated too, consisting of lithium salts in volatile organic solvents like ethylene carbonate. This makes the liberated electrolytes much more difficult to deal with as well; no simple dilution and neutralization with a basic solution like sodium bicarbonate will render these compounds safe enough to discharge to a sewer as is the case for lead-acid recycling. Dealing with that adds to the cost of recycling and cuts into the potential profit.
A good article tells us about the difficulties with a headline:
If Cobalt, which is becoming harder and more expensive to locate and mine, is no longer a component, as Elon Musk has determinedly planned, as part of the essential functioning lithium battery, then the economics of recycling a lithium battery will no longer be viable.
Recycling is not done to save the Planet. It is done to make money, and when not economically viable, it simply does not happen. We have toxic waste accumulating in landfills, or exported to countries who currently have recycling plants designed for extracting valuable resources.
We attempt ‘out of sight, out of mind’ harmful waste exports as if no one will ever know. But of course, we find out. The UK will soon have rid itself of diesel and petrol cars and we will find we cannot keep using the expensive and dangerous process of transporting end of life lithium batteries to Europe for recycling. We may copy China and make manufacturers of the electric cars responsible for recycling/ repurposing, which seems an eminently good idea. Indeed, all manufacturers of dangerous waste filled products could take ownership of the disposal problem, just as they are beginning to do in Australia with lithium batteries.
We also need a much higher profile campaign to STOP householders throwing their used batteries into landfill destined trash. Also, hoarding old phones and products we no longer use which have time-bomb potentially exploding lithium batteries sitting within them must be carefully disposed of and all users need advice and instruction to attend to this with some urgency.