There’s an interesting article about where old cars go in the winter edition of the Canadian Automotive Association magazine. The writer notes that internal combustion engine vehicles are, on average, 85 per cent recyclable, with the remaining 15 per cent — plastics, glass and foam — destined for landfill.
But what about electric vehicles (EVs)? Where do they go, especially the metal-intensive batteries that power them? If those were to end up in landfill like their combustion engine counterparts, it would likely result in a toxic mess, with the battery metals leaching out and ultimately contaminating nearby water and soil.
The EV movement sometimes seems like a deal with the devil: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But it appears there’s no stopping the shift and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Ottawa is obviously all in on the drive to get consumers to opt into EVs. The Liberal government late last year issued a mandate requiring that 20 per cent of all new purchased vehicles be electric by 2026, ramping up to 60 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035.
Canadians purchased 1.6 million new rides in 2021, the most recent year for which Statistics Canada has data. Currently, the average lifespan of an EV battery is a decade before it needs to be replaced. Between “2021 and 2030, about 12.85 million tons of EV lithium-ion batteries will go offline worldwide,” estimates the Institute for Energy Research (IER).
The looming EV battery disposal problem is just one of the missing directions on the green roadmap. Battery recycling seems to live only at the edges of Ottawa’s energy transition plans. The federal government merely alluded to recycling in its $3.8-billion critical minerals strategy released in December: “Current forecasts show supply deficits if critical mineral production, processing and recycling are not increased.” But that was about it on the recycling front.
The federal government is also feverishly trying to build a critical metals supply system to jumpstart a homegrown EV battery industry. Earlier this month, it gave the go-ahead to construct a lithium mine near James Bay in Quebec. The mine is just one of many projects the Liberals hope to shepherd along as part of the energy transition. It’s not just the government pushing ahead, though. General Motors Co. on Tuesday announced a $650-million investment in a Canadian lithium miner.
But if end-of-life EV batteries pose an environmental threat, so do the mining processes involved in extracting tons of lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese for new batteries.
In many countries, lithium, the critical element in lithium-ion batteries, is taken from salt flats. Documented environmental degradation from the process includes a huge demand for water and the leaching of lithium pools into surrounding areas. In Canada, lithium is mined from rock, but chemicals are still used to extract it. The James Bay project has 271 conditions covering measures to protect fish, birds, bats and wetlands, as well as lands and resources used by Indigenous peoples.
The circular economy is touted as an important part of the solution to environmental woes. Why not put battery recycling into the mix? There is more than enough material to play with. It is possible that less than five per cent of lithium-ion batteries have been recycled as of 2021, according to data cited by the World Economic Forum. And the value of recycled lithium-ion batteries was pegged at US$4 billion in 2021 by data aggregator Statista, which forecast it to grow to US$22.8 billion by 2030.
Ottawa might not be putting a lot of resources into recycling lithium-ion batteries, but there are companies in Canada who see an opportunity. For example, Toronto-based Li-Cycle Holdings Corp., listed on the New York Stock Exchange, currently operates lithium-ion battery recycling facilities in Ontario, New York, Arizona and Alabama with others expected to come online this year. The CAA’s article mentioned Moment Energy Inc., a Western Canada company that received funding last year from Mercedes-Benz Group AG to turn old EV batteries into energy storage units for buildings.
Some will rail against the green transition even though it represents a new industrial age of technological innovation. EV battery recyclers are just one of many groups of entrepreneurs and inventors working on the transition. Perhaps Ottawa and corporations should back their efforts if we don’t want the EV changeover to add to our environmental debt load.
— Gigi Suhanic