Sourcing Battery Metals Without New Mining

Today, Earthworks is releasing a new report which demonstrates the potential for recycling to offset demand for newly mined metals in the EV battery supply chain. This reduction in demand is necessary to relieve the mounting pressure on mining-affected communities and ecosystems.

The report, Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling, prepared for Earthworks by researchers at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF) examines four key battery metals: copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt.

The report finds that between 25-55% of projected demand for EV batteries over the next two decades could be offset by optimizing battery metal recovery, and that recovery rates of above 90% are technologically feasible for all four metals. However, economic incentives and policy requirements are currently lacking to make optimal recycling of battery metals a reality.

But given the projected rate of growth in demand for battery metals, recycling on its own won’t be enough. We also need to rethink the transportation mix and the paradigm of private car ownership–particularly in places like North America where public transportation is often inadequate and car ownership rates are very high.

Impacts of copper, lithium, cobalt and nickel mining around the world

From Argentina and Chile to Nevada and California, lithium exploration and extraction is encroaching on Indigenous lands without free, prior and informed consent, consuming vast quantities of water and brine in some of the world’s most arid regions.

From Indonesia to Russia, nickel mining and processing is polluting Indigenous lands and communities. Until recently several EV battery-grade nickel processing facilities in Indonesia had proposed disposing of their waste slurry in the ocean.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, industrial cobalt mining has brought decades of corruption, tax evasion and other improprieties by large mining companies. It has also brought water and air pollution responsible for widespread respiratory illnesses and toxic concentrations of metal in the blood people living near mine sites. This contamination has also led to the loss of vegetation and farmland, impeding the growth of agriculture and tourism, sectors that could help diversify the region’s economy and reduce its dependence on mining.

From Peru to Canada, copper mining is also devastating Indigenous lands and livelihoods, draining water from local aquifers, creating lasting legacies of harm through perpetual acid mine drainage and tailings dam disasters.

We are in the midst of an urgent transition to renewable energy–a transition necessary to avert climate catastrophe. Unfortunately, mining is a dirty business with a long track record of human rights abuses and environmental destruction. By demanding responsibly-sourced minerals, EV manufacturers and other clean tech companies can accelerate our renewable energy transition and push the mining industry to clean up its act.