Switching to electric vehicles (EVs) is key to reducing climate change because EVs, fueled by lithium ion batteries (LIBs), don’t burn fossil fuels that release polluting carbon dioxide. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have “too much of a good thing,” even when it comes to cars that don’t belch CO2. Mining lithium and other metals needed to build EV batteries are a threat to the environment because disposing of old batteries creates toxic waste.
An important new report outlines three key ways to make EVs a climate-friendly transportation choice without trashing the planet they are supposed to help save. The three-way strategy can be summed up in a mantra you’re probably very familiar with: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
“Reduce” means reduce demand for both too many new vehicles and more mining of the metals needed for the batteries themselves, says Australia’s Institute for Sustainable Futures in the report they just prepared for Earthworks.
Reducing the demand for too many new vehicles is admittedly a tricky proposition. On the one hand, we need to replace gasoline combustion engines with those powered by clean electric batteries as soon as possible if we have any hope of meeting the Paris Climate agreements. On the other hand, we don’t need to replace vehicles “car for car.” Car-sharing services in urban and suburban areas have already shown how willing many consumers are to give up owning their own vehicle. Work-at-home patterns developed during the pandemic could lead to more people staying at home long-term, maybe enabling two-car households to slim down to one. Carpooling and using mass transit where it’s available also keep vehicles off the road. The goal, say the report’s authors, should be to reduce demand for new cars overall while replacing existing cars with EVs and keeping the focus on meeting transportation needs rather than promote individual car ownership.
“Reuse” consciousness has already taken hold in many other consumer categories, so why not lithium ion batteries, too? Many of us shop at thrift stores and on web sites like eBay, Craig’s List, Freecycle, and our neighborhood list-servs for used clothing, appliances, toys, electronics and other items that still have a lot of life left in them. It could be the same with EV batteries, giving those LIBs a ‘second-life’ in a new application once they are no longer considered suitable for use in electric vehicles. “End-of-life” batteries are already being taken out of vehicles and reused in energy grid storage applications, with potential additional lifetimes of approximately 12 years.
Recycling has the potential to reduce primary demand compared to total demand in 2040 by approximately 25% for lithium, 35% for cobalt and nickel and 55% for copper. This creates an opportunity to significantly reduce the demand for new mining, conclude the report’s authors, which would help protect the environment and the Indigenous people who often live near mines. Some industries have already embraced reclaimed gold, silver and even diamonds. Why not adapt that same mentality to lithium, copper, nickel and cobalt, the key minerals in EV batteries? EV battery production could scale up not just by capturing the minerals in discarded vehicle batteries, but by extracting what’s in our old electronics as well. “The largest lithium mine could be in the junk drawers of America,” says Tesla co-founder JB Staubel.
Just as consumers have created demand for vehicles and electronics powered by lithium ion batteries, how can we reduce the impact those batteries have on the environment?
- Resist the urge to buy new products containing lithium ion batteries. Start with your phone, computer, tablet, and other consumer electronics. When you do replace the old with the new, make sure to recycle the old properly. Retailer Best Buy accepts them; some municipal solid waste services do so, as well.
- Hold on to a vehicle once you buy it. It’s estimated that the lithium ion battery in most EVs should last 15 years. Given these vehicles are also internet connected, it’s possible that new software updates can be added electronically, so a new vehicle that’s well cared for could last 15 or even 20 years.
- If you’re in the market for a new car, consider an EV or PHEV (plug-in hybrid, which will get 25-30 miles on a charge and then travel on gasoline). But also explore options to share a car with other families in your neighborhood, or perhaps go car-free.
- Finally, contact your elected officials and urge them to support “Extended Producer Responsibility” and “Product Stewardship” policies that require manufacturers to bear more responsibility for how lithium-ion batteries are produced, used, and re-used before they’re discarded. Consumers can only do so much. In the end, it will be up to manufacturers to reduce their batteries’ impacts, creatively reuse them, and recycle them as much as possible.
For more details, see “Reducing new mining for electric vehicle battery metals: responsible sourcing through demand reduction strategies and recycling” prepared for Earthworks by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, in Sydney Australia, April 2021.