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GAIA has strong concerns about the current practices of battery lifecycle management. The unchecked production of toxic batteries with premature obsolescence, current end-of-life processing techniques (or “recycling”), and risks of waste colonialism are key environmental justice challenges to be addressed in the transition to BEVs. 

Little is known about the fates of batteries retired from EVs, beyond a few references about less than 5% of them being recycled. Today, the most common industry “recycling” proposal – whether industry labels it as pyrometallurgy or hydrometallurgy – is a combination of thermal treatment, followed by acid-leaching (hydrometallurgy). The thermal treatment can either be pyrometallurgy smelting which is done at a temperature ranging from 1400C to 1700C, or lower-temperature incineration or pyrolysis which is done at a temperature around or below 600C. Both types of thermal treatment must be followed by hydrometallurgy as a second step in order to recover cobalt, copper, and nickel from the alloy or slag. In case of pyrometallurgy smelting, lithium is not recovered as it’s lost during the smelting process and too costly to separate from slag. 

The reliance on thermal processing of batteries raises serious concerns about toxicity and carbon intensity. Treating batteries with high-heat thermal processing results in toxic emissions, ash and other byproducts, in particular carcinogenic emissions generated from burning nickel and cobalt compounds and other toxic gasses such as benzene (C6H6), hydrogen cyanide (HCN), and formaldehyde (CH2O), acid gas species hydrogen fluoride (HF), and hydrogen bromide (HBr) released at ambient temperature and upon heating. Burning fluorinated polymers in batteries can also generate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as ‘forever chemicals,’ with fluorine coming from decomposition of the electrode binder (PVDF) and electrolyte (LiPF6). All too often, such facilities are sited in environmental justice communities, exposing frontline communities and workers to toxic emissions. Risks of PFAS release were for example a key factor in a grassroots victory in defeating a proposal for a low-temperature pyrometallurgy facility in Endicott, New York. 

Additional concerns include low rates of material recovery and significant greenhouse gas emissions: for every tonne of battery processed, approximately an astonishing four tonnes of carbon dioxide will be emitted during the smelting process. The pyrometallurgical process can also generate carbon tetrafluoride, a particular compound that is estimated to be 6630 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Current methods of burning batteries for “recycling” are not an answer, and regardless, recycling should only be considered as the last resort in a material’s  life cycle.  Safe and effective recycling further requires a host of significant barriers to be resolved in practice and policy, including robust collection systems, and addressing the high costs of transportation and logistics. All possible measures should be immediately taken in battery design and policy to ensure repairability of EV batteries, putting an end to the status quo of EV batteries with an artificially limited life in the vehicle. Immediate policy measures must also be taken to require battery design and accessible battery health and history information to enable EV batteries to be reused or repurposed when taken out of the vehicle at 80% of its initial capacity, thereby extending their life for 6 to 30 years for different second-life applications.