REPORT: Recycling Electric Vehicle Battery Minerals Can Significantly Reduce Need for New Mining

New research lays out strategies for reducing the need for new mining to meet skyrocketing demand

Today Earthworks released a new report demonstrating the potential for recycling to offset demand for newly mined metals (copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt) for electric vehicle batteries. Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures prepared the report, Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling.

“This research proves that we don’t need to dig new holes in the ground to power the clean energy transition,” said Payal Sampat, Earthworks’ Mining Program Director. “We can accelerate the transition to a sustainable materials economy by ensuring that the minerals in electric vehicle batteries are sourced responsibly.”

According to the research, effectively recycling end-of-life batteries could reduce global EV mineral demand 55% for newly mined copper, 25% for lithium and 35% for cobalt and nickel by 2040—creating an opportunity to significantly reduce the demand for new mining. Given the pace of growth in demand for EVs, it will also be important to pursue other strategies in tandem with recycling, including policies to disincentive private car ownership and make forms of active and public transport more accessible. Any new mining that occurs must adhere to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance standard.

Current battery technologies require a significant amount of materials that are found predominantly in environmentally sensitive and often socio-economically marginalised regions of the world. As demand for these materials increase, the pressures on these regions are likely to be amplified. For clean energy to be truly clean, socially just and ecologically sustainable, responsible options must be developed and supported to reduce adverse effects along the minerals supply chain. 

Other Key Findings:

  • It is technologically possible to recover all four metals at rates above 90%. Current recovery is limited by the lack of a strong economic driver or policy that could encourage the use of recycled materials. 
  • In the future, end-of-life EV batteries are likely to be the major source for secondary metals for cobalt, lithium and nickel. Copper is likely to come from general copper recycling routes. 
  • While not yet broadly established, reuse schemes could allow batteries to have a second life in a new application once they are no longer considered suitable for EV use. The most likely market is in grid storage applications. 
  • Reducing demand for private car ownership is an essential part of any strategy to limit new mining. Public transportation and active transport, such as bikes, could reduce demand for private car ownership. The primary barrier is a lack of the necessary policies and incentives to enable such a shift, particularly in North America. 

EV manufacturers have a critical role to play in ensuring responsible minerals sourcing. They have a responsibility to demand the minerals used in their products are sourced responsibly, ideally through secondary sources, or through IRMA-compliant mines in the case of primary sourcing.

Best practice policies for managing electric vehicle batteries should align with circular economy principles that prioritize strategies for ensuring decreased material and energy, such as avoidance and reuse, before pursuing recycling and disposal options. The European Union has recently introduced new EV battery regulations in line with circular economy principles. More industrial economies, including the United States, must follow suit.  The report also urges adoption of strategies such as end-of-life takeback for EV batteries, traceability along the supply chain, standardization of battery design, modular component replacement and extending battery life, and removing barriers to metals recirculation and battery takeback. 

The full report is available here

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For more information:

Earthworks’ Making Clean Energy Clean, Just and Equitable Initiative

UTS-ISF report (2019): Responsible Minerals Sourcing for Renewable Energy

University of Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures

Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries