The future of battery recycling

Electric cars changing the recycled battery story –

Friday on My Mind – The future for recycled batteries

Luckily, the no-name brand batteries worked and the magnetic light above the stove once again works – but only until the batteries expire.

We are all of us dependent to one degree or another on the efficient workings of batteries, be it in our car or cars, caravans (the ones that draw energy from solar panels) or the many different types of batteries used in our many household devices.

One thing we older people notice (and grumble about) is that batteries don’t last as long as they once did. Not so long ago, it was typical to buy a car battery with a two-year warranty and it would probably last five years. We all know someone with a sad bad battery story.

In the future, we will all rely more heavily on batteries than we ever did before. As the world heads towards the transition from fossil fuels, batteries will play a critical role in sustaining green energy such as solar panels and wind farms.

A recent article in Nature flags the most important issue in this transition – the far-from sustainable end of life process attached to conventional batteries. A panel of leading global experts contributed to the Nature article, which looked at how energy technology development can integrate sustainability principles.

We should all know about rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. They have already revolutionised portable electronics. We all have at least a dozen lithium-ion batteries of one type or another running household devices.

That includes laptop computers, tablets, mobile phones, cameras, hearing aids (with chargers), clocks, power tools and all manner of electronic gizmos. Lithium-ion batteries will become critical in the future via decarbonisation of transport, enabling battery-powered electric vehicles.

But as usual, the world is not quite ready to cope with exponential market growth. Nature’s panellists agree this will lead to a sustainability problem. Other challenges include the scarcity of raw materials required for battery chemistry.

There are places where you can leave dead batteries to be recycled or disposed of in a responsible manner. The Battery World franchise, for example, provides a drop-off facility for all types of batteries and so do Aldi, Officeworks, Bunnings and more.

As we’d know, town and city transfer stations have long provided a collection point for used lead-acid batteries, and many garages participate in the scheme.

Most recycle stations collect exhausted single-use alkaline batteries which, until the mid-1990s, contained mercury. These batteries too can be dropped at a recycling collection station. These batteries are a substantial problem if they end up in landfill. It’s not just the toxic chemicals that leach in the ground, used batteries pose a considerable fire risk. This is why we are now asked to tape the terminals. (News to me. Ed.)

There is an ongoing education programme to teach people how best to dispose of lead-acid batteries as well as a national network of collection stations. But the bigger problem is the proliferation of lithium-ion batteries (LIB) and other types of rechargeable batteries.

There are new laws now to enforce the considered storage and disposal of so-called ‘button’ or ‘coin’ batteries, after fatalities involving small children.The smart advice is to wrap these batteries in Sellotape and keep them in a jar for when you next go to an LIB recycling station.

Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) says only 10% of Australia’s lithium-ion battery waste was recycled in 2021, compared with 99% of lead acid battery waste. Mind you, this is quite an improvement on Australia’s record from five years ago (less than 2%). We’ll need to keep up the effort, though. Lithium-ion battery waste is growing by 20% per year and could exceed 136,000 tonnes by 2036.

If recycled, 95% of lithium-ion battery components can be turned into new batteries or used in other industries, the CSIRO says.

The national science agency completed a major report in 2020 on the long-term potential for recycling and re-use of LIBs (lithium-ion batteries) (Ed trying hard not to make sarcastic remarks about the other sort of Libs.). As things stand, Australia’s economy is losing between $603 million and $3.1 billion by not fully utilising the value associated with battery metals and materials due to “poor LIB collection rates, offshore recycling and landfilling of the LIB battery waste.”

Australia is playing catch-up when you look at what’s going on in other jurisdictions, where manufacturers are forced to reclaim exhausted batteries.

Depending on the type of battery, waste streams may consist of various heavy metals and toxic compounds, including hazardous metals such as mercury, lead, nickel and cadmium.
The most common battery types being recycled are lead acid (LAB), nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and alkaline batteries. Unfortunately, the re-cycling method used with lead acid batteries is not compatible for recovery of materials from lithium-ion batteries.

Australia has a national battery recycling scheme called B-Cycle. This program has partnered with approximately 100 organisations across Australia to provide recycling drop-off points for the public.

For example, Aldi supermarkets offer a free battery recycling service at all their Australian stores. All brands of AA, AAA, C, D and 9V batteries (both rechargeable and non-rechargeable) are accepted. Simply drop your used batteries into the dedicated bins in store.

Dumping lithium-ion batteries and their equivalent in landfill creates a long-term toxicity problem. Batteries can take 100 years to break down; and when they do, the heavy metals used in manufacture linger on in the soil.

Perth-based Envirostream is one company poised to benefit from the push to recycle LIBs, a relatively new industry in Australia. Publicly listed Lithium Australia is the parent company of Envirostream which also has a plant in Victoria. The West Australian reported that Victoria’s Environmental Protection Agency has granted Lithium Australia a 99-year operating licence. The agreement allowed Envirostream to continue processing up to 500 million tonnes of lithium and specified electronic waste a year at its Campbelltown premises. Envirostream also has a deal with Bunnings to collect spent batteries from all its Australian stores and selected stores in New Zealand.

That is more or less the state of play in Australia’s push to recycle lithium batteries. We can all play our part. For some years, I’ve been using rechargeable batteries whenever possible. There’s a small capital outlay at the start – say $50 for a battery charger and a set of AA batteries. Thereafter, we use solar-generated power to recharge batteries to operate devices like cameras, digital recorders, mouse and keyboard and so on. The batteries will (or should) last for years. If you take this approach, then your household is taking partial control of the battery waste problem. Rechargeable batteries don’t last forever, however, and they also should be recycled via collection stations.

Meanwhile, I’m relieved to know that my zinc air hearing aid batteries are considered to be non-hazardous. Nevertheless, they typically last for a week or 10 days and there is no commercial recycling solution. Also, they belong to the button/coin category of battery which could easily be swallowed by a child (or a dog). One of my peers has a sophisticated set of hearing aids which can be programmed to interact with a smart phone. They come with a charging station for (yes, you guessed it) rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.  Which is more harmful to the environment?

What’s that? You’ll have to speak up!

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