The context of Circular Economy
Text by Francesca Coveri
The circular economy is about linking, generating, preserving value and answering the need for sustainable growth. Its objective is to change the classical product lifecycle conceived as “production-consumption-disposal”, extending the useful life of goods. Nowadays in Europe, each year, 15 tons of materials per capita is used, while among the 4.5 per capita which is disposed of, half goes into definitive life end. Given the increasing aggregate need for materials, due to the growing population and the subsequent scarcity of resources, the model of the linear economy is not any more sustainable. For that reason, there is the need of recovering from waste inputs of production, turning the current path into a non-ending circle of production, consumption, disposal, collection and recycling, up to re-creation of raw materials (European commission).
Considering the economic perspective, a circular economy is not only a move in favour of environmental sustainability but also an opportunity for economic growth, for both businesses and society. In fact, the European Union forecasts that it could generate employment by creating 580.000 workplaces (which could grow up to 700.000 with the realization of Agenda 2030), up to 72 billion in saving for European enterprises and GDP growth up to 1%. Circular economic advantages could potentially also allow the creation of new partnerships and new, previously unexplored, markets (Battaglia, 2020). These are only a few reasons why the circular economy should be the base of the structural premises of firms nowadays, as part of the corporate social responsibility of businesses. Major climate and biological risks are threatening our planet therefore a long-term, sustainability-oriented optic should be the pillar of the society, as suggested by the European Green Deal proposed in March 2020 (European parliament, 2021).
The circular rethinking of the economy could potentially be applied in every production cycle which ends with the disposal of some left-over materials. Out of its application in products’ life cycles many secondary markets and industries have been created, of which the ‘Economics of plastic’ is probably the most common example.
URBAN MINING: What is it and what are the possible opportunities and limits
A novelty in the circular direction is urban mining, often part of wider projects for ‘sustainable cities’. Urban mining refers to the practice of recovering, out of households and business-owner rubbish and wastes, the e-waste, such as lithium and alkaline batteries, electronic home devices, their spare parts and electrical-based goods and materials in general. The functioning of urban mines follows the so-called rule of the three Rs: reduction, re-usage and recycle. An urban mine is a functional area in which daily rubbish is conveyed in the form of leftover materials such as plastic, paper, glass, aluminium and e-wastes. Urban mining refers to the subsequent research and recovery of rare materials extracted from e-wastes through mechanical and chemical processes. Thanks to those urban mining spaces, some clean materials can be separated right away and sent out to the urban mine for re-commercialization, bringing disposal costs to 0.
Second-life-raw inputs of production are as useful as if they have primarily extracted materials from traditional mining resources, therefore this practice also, indirectly, allows to save natural, exhaustible sources (European parliament, 2014).
Overmore, precious metals and rare lands can also be extracted from urban mines and, since they are secondary sources, manufacturing processes are a source of competitive advantage (Samperi, 2020). Second raw materials can be obtained at the same price as primary sources if not for much less. For instance, a 2018 study by Zeng, Mathews and Li made utilizing real cost data from e-waste processors in China, demonstrated that pure copper and gold could be recovered from e-waste streams at costs that are comparable to those encountered in virgin mining of ores (Zeng, Mathews, Li, 2018). The same researchers also stated that thanks to specialization, waste-mining techniques are becoming cheaper and cheaper every year. Urban mining costs for 1 kg of copper were found to have decreased from US$ 6.697 in 2010 to US$ 1.684 in 2015, and from US$ 8.438 to US$ 1.591 for gold over the same period (Linnenkoper, 2018). This tells us that, thanks to urban mining, all-equal raw materials can be sourced at equal cost (if not much less, with time). With the exceptional benefits of preventing waste of natural and exhaustible resources, as well as recycling, decreased costs of disposal and decreased emissions are achieved.
Anyway, other than metals per se, another major scope for circular economy and e-waste recovery are batteries. Batteries are nowadays used in everything from the car industry to high tech products, and simple home devices. Recycling batteries have historically been a challenge, despite that, valuable attempts have been recently made. Reviewing first-generation metal recovery processes, scholars in China lately emphasized the need for new selective leaching of most of the valuable metals from the spent LIBs (lithium batteries).
Discovered in 2015, one green, chemical process, for the recovery of metals from spent Li-ion batteries makes use of citric acid and aqueous preparations to get cobalt and lithium with excellent recovery yields (98% and 99% respectively) (Figure 1) (Pagliaro and Meneguzzo, 2019). Spent batteries are first discharged and then manually dismantled to recover the foils in metallic form thanks to the leaching process, getting directly recycled after dismantling.
From an economic point of view, seven main components (cobalt, lithium, copper, graphite, nickel, aluminium, and manganese) were reported to comprise more than 90% of the economic value of a spent lithium-ion battery. The demand for batteries that constantly exceeds supply shows precisely why the economic advantages of re-generating these materials are so large and significant (Pagliaro, Meneguzzo, 2020). Also having a look at Europe’s situation of stocked metal trends, it is straightforward to see how wide is the extent to which secondary sources may help (Figure 2) (Statista Research Department, 2020). Recovering up to 99% of materials from waste means recovering costs out of something which was about to be wasted, matching the circular view of the economy, safeguarding the planet and saving on costs.
Urban mining has a major limit though: concerning primary sources, it requires a great commitment by the society as a whole, of both people and institutions. Discards may be collected but not destined for recycling if there are no appropriate processes or infrastructure for handling a particular type of post-consumer scrap (institution, knowledge) or if the processes are in place but the discards end up in the wrong bin (people and information). For this purpose, an instrument was developed (Spinoza, Rostek, Loibl, Stijepic, 2020) to estimate the effectiveness of an Urban mine, the end-of-life collection rate (EoL CR):
EOL collection rate= EOL products collected in the mine for recycling
EOL products potentially collectable in the mine for recycling
It measures how well the waste management system is capturing potentially recoverable metals emerging from the urban mine. This rate is most important when assessing the sustainability of cities, their collection infrastructures efficiency and the pertinent national and regional regulations, including efforts to collect particular waste types, such as WEEE (see Astelav case, page 4).
To conclude and summarize what previously debriefed, I would like to report the 7 reasons for Urban mining explained by Recupel, a Belgium company which recycles lightbulbs and e-appliances (Recupel. be), about why it should be preferred to classical mining:
- The age of cheap, abundant raw materials is over.
- Raw material recuperation from e-waste can be done increasingly cost-efficiently. In cities all over the world, there are still millions of appliances waiting to be recovered.
- For some rare metals, urban mining is gradually becoming the only source.
- Urban mining avoids a substantial amount of pernicious effects on human beings and the environment.
- Classic mining alone cannot meet the rising demand for electrical and electronic appliances.
- The business community and investors are jumping on board the urban mining train.
Current attempts and cases
For urban mining to become viable as an effective eco-social solution, quantity, location and availability of materials must be traced. With this purpose, the EU accounts for the data thanks to its Urban Mine Platform. It collects information about markets, waste flows, composition, and available stocks of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), vehicles and batteries for the 28 EU member states, Norway, Switzerland and limitedly for Iceland (European Urban Mine Platform). Increasing information availability supported by instruments, as this dedicated platform, sustains the functioning of already-present urban mines but could encourage new establishments of mining facilities to foster recycling in urban areas. In this direction, the project for the Urban mine of Amsterdam PUMA developed by the Universiteit Leiden in 2015 forecasted the building of a database to collect publicly available information (AMS Project, Universiteit Leiden).
Currently, industries and businesses, in general, are making attempts to bring their business model to higher compatibility with a circular view of production processes. Numerous manufacturing companies are now more and more relying on recycled raw materials as inputs of production, such as recycled paper and plastic, not only for goods produced but also very frequently for packaging, especially in the food industry.
Following a slower, but still fundamental, path of change, are those companies (producers or merchandisers of electric/electronic goods) who are trying to align with urban mining and the subsequent, metal and mineral-based, secondary source finished goods. An interesting case in that sense, which is often considered as a pioneer of this type of business in the Italian landscape, is Astelav. This company was born in Turin in 1970 as a provider of technical assistance for washing machines, but, nowadays, is a leader in selling re-generated spare parts for electronic home devices thanks to the technological innovation in place. Astelav, at the end of 2016, developed the Ri-generation project, which goes towards the principles of circular economy: “an example of an economy which donates domestic electric devices new life, those that otherwise would be sent to final disposal, creating new work opportunities”. In few words, this company collects the e-waste from urban mining locations, regenerates exhausted disposed of devices or collects useful spare parts to fix other devices in the future and make available on the market cheap and functioning electronics. Within this process, workplaces for people in difficulties are generated and the planet is safeguarded, fighting unconscious waste habits of still-useful resources and consumerism. In 2017, their first “Ri-generation shop” opened in Turin.
Astelav for Urban mining is only an example, but the same path of change is currently being verified for many other industries such as the food industry. More and more firms are nowadays applying to their business plan the purpose to have a production process of -1 impact during the packaging phase. For instance, some companies such as Ferrarelle, are using an amount of plastic or paper for packaging lower than the one obtained from recycling. Plus, as for corporate social responsibility, major companies are investing in primary-school education of children with multiple projects aimed at teaching ecology and recycling or are running massive media campaigns to raise awareness on these hot topics. Those are for sure good signs, small but important steps, which are helping to establish a positive, inspirational trend to follow for the realization of sustainable development goals of Agenda 2030.
Alessia Samperi, 10 December 2020, “What are Urban mines and why they do represent a treasure for the circular economy”, Sfridoo.com. Retrieved from https://www.sfridoo.com/2020/12/10/economia-circolare/cosa-sono-le-miniere-urbane-e-perche-rappresentano-un-tesoro-sommerso-per-leconomia-circolare/
Astelav. it. Who we are?. Retrieved from https://www.astelav.com/it/chi-siamo-astelav/
Astelav.it The RI-generation project. Retrieved from https://www.astelav.com/it/progetto-ri-generation/
European Commission, “Circular economy: link, generate and preserve the value”, Italian Ministry of Ecological transition. Retrieved from https://www.minambiente.it/sites/default/files/archivio/allegati/economia_circolare/ce_economia_circolare_depliant.pdf
European Parliament, 2021, “Circular Economy: definition, importance and advantages”, European parliament. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/it/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/economia-circolare-definizione-importanza-e-vantaggi
European Parliament, 2014, Informative note “The commitment of EU for the circular economy”.
Ferratelle, Progetto Scuola, Impatto -1. Retrieved from https://www.ferrarelleprogettoscuola.it/
Kirstin Linnenkoper, 2018, “Forget about metal ores, ‘urban mining’ is 13 times cheaper”. Recycling International/Business. Retrieved from https://recyclinginternational.com/business/forget-about-metal-ores-urban-mining-is-13-times-cheaper/11572/
Marco Battaglia, 12 Giugno 2020, “How to apply circular economy in business? 5 steps to follow”, Sfridoo.com. Retrieved from https://www.sfridoo.com/2020/06/12/aziende/come-fare-economia-circolare-in-azienda-5-step-da-seguire/
Pagliaro, M., & Meneguzzo, F. (2019). Lithium battery reusing and recycling: A circular economy insight. Heliyon, 5(6), e01866.
PUMA Research project, Universiteit Leiden/Research. Retrieved from https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/research/research-projects/science/cml-puma-prospecting-the-urban-mines-of-amsterdam
Recupel. be, “7 reasons why urban mining is overtaking classical mining”. Retrieved from https://www.recupel.be/en/blog/7-reasons-why-urban-mining-is-overtaking-classical-mining/
Statista Research Department, Jan 31, 2020, “Forecast of the total stock of selected materials for batteries in urban mining in the European Union (EU) between 2016 and 2020”, Statista.it/Chemicals&Resources/Mining, metals and minerals. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1011971/battery-material-urban-mine-development-forecast-eu/
Tercero, L., Rostek, L., Loibl, A., & Stijepic, D. THE PROMISE AND LIMITS OF URBAN MINING.
Urban mine platform, Glossary, http://www.urbanmineplatform.eu/glossary
“Urban Mining of E-Waste is Becoming More Cost-Effective Than Virgin Mining”, Zeng, Methew and Li, 2018, Environ.
Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 8, 4835–4841, https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.7b04909
van der Voet, E., Huele, R., Koutamanis, A., van Reijn, B., van Bueren, E., Spierings, J., … & Blok, M. (2017). Prospecting the urban mine of Amsterdam.
Possibilities of circular economy in mining waste management
Text by Henrietta Nyström
The production phase in mining offers different possibilities for micro-level circular economy practices. Producing batteries for electric vehicles require the mining of minerals, mainly cobalt, lithium and nickel, the processing of which generates different waste materials. At present, the management of mining waste constitutes a challenge on both local and global levels. How can and could the circular economy principles guide mining waste management?
Mining waste causes issues because of its volume and its possible and even long-term social and environmental impacts. In the European Union, the mining and quarrying sector stands for 28.2% of all waste (Wosniak & Pactwa 2018). Mining generates so-called extractive waste, which includes different types of mineral wastes from the extraction phase, such as excavation wastes (e.g. waste rock), mineral processing and treatment wastes (e.g. tailings and waste sand) and drilling wastes (Blengini et al. 2019: 45). From the circular economy point of view, the most problematic process in mining is the mineral enrichment processes where metals are separated from other uneconomic and non-exploitative materials since the process generates a lot of waste. The remaining by-products typically contain sulfide minerals that comprise different metals such as copper, arsenic and cadmium, which can pose risks to human health and pollute groundwater and soil. Sulfide minerals that come in contact with humidity may also create acid catchment water that poses environmental risks. (Geologian tutkimuskeskus 2020: 25.) Currently, mining by-products are dealt with by landfilling, disposing them underground or by deep tailing disposal where the waste is dumped into the deep parts of the ocean (Florene 2021). In addition to the social and environmental risks mentioned above, the current widely utilized methods of disposal awake economic concerns. Mining wastes may include different amounts and compositions of metals, which lose their value when not exploited (Blengini et al. 2019: 117).
The objective of circular economy practices in mining waste management is to create value to the previously uneconomic waste material while reducing the total amount and impacts of generated waste. Waste recycling reduces the need for primary extraction, provides a way for the metal industry to use lower-cost raw materials and for mining companies to avoid often expensive landfilling costs (Blengini et al. 2019: 73). In addition, the avoidance of landfilling frees land for other types of uses, which may benefit the surrounding community. At present, countries of the European Union are highly dependent on imported raw materials, so the circular economy opens up a possibility for increased self-sufficiency (ibid. 73).
Reuse of mining waste has not yet become widely implemented among corporations, but some introduced practices show the potential of a circular economy in mining waste management. For example, mining waste can be used by the construction industry in building roads and dams or as soil additives. The mining industry can also benefit from using waste material in on-site construction. However, to preserve the value of metals in the waste material, different metal recovery methods have been developed, such as bioleaching, a technology that recovers critical metals from primary ores or concentrates with the help of microorganisms (ibid. 79). As part of the EU-funded project, NEMO, which aims to assess the potential of near zero-waste recycling of sulphidic mining waste in a circular economy, there have been bioleaching pilot projects in many regions, such as Sotkamo in Finland, Exeter in the United Kingdom, Leuven in Belgium, Romania and Sweden (Nemo project s.a.). These projects aim to develop the possibilities of reusing mining waste from for example copper and nickel extraction; two important minerals for battery production. Not only does bioleaching enable the reuse of battery mineral production waste, but battery minerals can also be detached from waste, like in the Kasese Cobalt Company site in Uganda, where cobalt is separated from copper waste tailings (Blengini et al. 2019: 79-82.).
A recent study conducted in Gordo, Italy, manifests the potential of other extractive waste reuse methods. The research tested the metal recovery from mining waste rock and tailings with methods called wet shaking table and froth flotation (Mehta et al 2020). The tests conveyed that recovery percentages vary between different methods and different waste materials, which confirms the need for more research on metal separation technologies.
If the circular economy practices in mining waste management will reach a larger scope, it’s important to take a look at the constraints and drawbacks. Firstly, waste reduction measures are considered large investments and expenses by companies that might delay or even hinder them from being taken into use as part of the productionimprovedAlthough recycled raw materials contain the benefit of lower price levels, the secondary raw material’s value drops in comparison to the primary product’s value (Blengini et al. 2019: 75), which might affect companies’ willingness to invest in waste management improval. The composition of the extractive waste (for example size and pH-value) and the amount of critical raw materials in it affect the simplicity and profitability of its recycling. (Ibid. 45; Mehta et al. 2020: 16). Another issue is the lack of sufficient waste management policies, lack of knowledge of best circular economy practices and their environmental effects even on the EU level (Ibid.), meaning more research and hazard assessment on the qualities of waste and new technological solutions will be needed in the future to develop more sustainable practices.
On a global scale, the possibilities for companies to implement waste management practices are unequally distributed. Wealthier nations typically obtain better prerequisites to develop their waste management systems in terms of both financial and technological resources and know-how, while the need for improved waste management seems greater in developing countries, where most of the earth’s mineral resources are located and which are facing the most severe impacts of climate change. The unequal geographical division of solution capacity may also translate into an unequal division of the environmental, social and economic impacts of mining waste. On the other hand, global interlinkages in the mining industry may facilitate waste management investments in the global South as well. Another question is what consequences increased self-sufficiency of raw materials in developed nations resulting from recycling will have on developing nations? In some countries, for example in Indonesia where mining revenues constitute 24% of all exports (Statista Research Department 2021), there is a high dependency on exporting mining products, which might become a disadvantage in case of reduced imports from developed countries.
In conclusion, we can say that considering a projected increase in the mining of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt and the problems with extractive waste, mining waste management constitutes a key issue globally. Different methods such as bioleaching, wet shaking table and flotation, could provide economical and more sustainable alternatives for existing waste management practices and enhance a circular economy in mining. Despite the several benefits of a circular economy, we should also acknowledge the possible local and global spillover effects. Future solutions will depend not only on the willingness and resources of mining companies and on market demand but also on waste management policies and their monitoring.
Blengini, G.A.; Mathieux, F.; Mancini, L.; Nyberg, M.; Viegas, H.M. 2019. Recovery
of critical and other raw materials from mining waste and landfills. European Commission.https://www.kriittisetmateriaalit.fi/wpcontent/uploads/2019/08/aaa_20190506-d3-jrc-science-for-policyrecovery_of_rm_from_mining_waste_and_landfills_4_07_19_online_final.pdf. Read: 17.4.2021.
Florene, Ursula 2021. Indonesia’s EV battery aspirations unearth mining waste problems. KvAsia. Retrieved from https://kr-asia.com/indonesias-ev-battery-aspirations-unearth-mining-waste-problems. Read: 16.4.2021.
Geologian tutkimuskeskus 2020. MineFacts- tietoa kaivoksista, kaivosteollisuudesta, luvanmyöntämisprosessista ja ympäristöstä. Retrieved from http://projects.gtk.fi/export/sites/projects/MineFacts/materiaalit/MineFacts_fin.pdf. Read: 18.4.2021.
Justyna Wozniak * and Katarzyna Pactwa 2018. Overview of Polish Mining Wastes with Circular Economy Model and Its Comparison with Other Wastes. Sustainability 10, 3994; doi:10.3390/su10113994. Read: 16.4.2021.
Mehta, Neha, Antonella Dino, Giovanna, Passarella, Irede, Ajmone-Marsan, Franco, Rossetti, Piergiorgio, Antonio De Luca, Domenico 2020. Assessment of the Possible Reuse of Extractive Waste Coming from Abandoned Mine Sites: Case Study in Gorno, Italy. Sustainability 12, 2471, doi:10.3390/su12062471. Read: 22.4.2021.
Nemo project s.a. https://h2020-nemo.eu/outreach-communication/. Read: 18.4.2021.
Statista Research Department 2021. Export revenue of the mining industry in Indonesia 2016-2018. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1091477/mining-industry-export-revenue-indonesia/. Read: 21.4.2021.
Battery reusing and recycling + alternatives to batteries
Text by Jeanne Leroux
The growing use of batteries has a serious impact on the environment nowadays. Indeed, there are more than two million metric tonnes of batteries (Ambrose, 2020b) that are retired or used per year. We use them in different electronic devices, especially smartphones, tablets, computers and electric cars.
This is why it has been really important to find a way to reduce waste, first of all, to avoid environmental damages, but it is also interesting to create benefits out of them and create a circular economy around them. Following the waste hierarchy and the 3R strategy, many scientists have researched ways to recover, redesign, reuse and recycle batteries. All the processes around reusing and recycling used lithium batteries create a trillion-dollar market (Ambrose, 2020a), while there are also other types of rechargeable batteries, such as lead-acid, nickel-metal hydride, nickel-cadmium batteries. But in most of the research, the focus is on lithium-ion batteries, because it is the material in which we found the most solutions of reusing.
Firstly, reusing is giving a second life to batteries. In the case of vehicles batteries, after their first use, it is sometimes possible to use the same battery in another device. But most of the time, batteries are collected with the aim to stock energy (Melin, 2019). Indeed, after the first use, batteries are not efficient enough to both stock and liberate the energy anymore. Despite this, they can still be useful to stock electricity, for example in solar panels or wind turbines, in which battery modules are put together to create bigger storage. Indeed, even after 10 years of use in vehicles, they still retain more than two-thirds of their usable energy storage and combined, batteries can form important storage.
Reusing is a good way to close the loop of batteries’ uses (Pagliaro & Meneguzzo, 2019). Indeed, it reduces waste and also saves money. This is why it is interesting to implement it not just for companies but also for governments and environmental organizations. Companies have a real interest in managing used batteries. Indeed, for them, it is a real way to benefit as much as they can from the products, they create a second revenue of batteries, even if they have to invest in the reconditioning, they can still benefit from the final product value.
On the political scale, many improvements have been done. For example, the European Commission signed the Innovation Deal framework in 2018, to control how e-vehicle batteries are reused and recycled after their first use. Policies have an important role to assure more responsible and sustainable practices concerning batteries and mining in general. It takes care of the producer responsibility but also provides recommendations at different scales in the European Union to improve our uses and make greener growth possible. As well as the European Commission, the Lithium-ion Car Battery Recycling Advisory Group was created in California to advise the Legislature on policies about vehicles batteries, in response to Assembly Bill No. 2832. This group is meeting several times a year with scientists from different fields to manage battery waste, which is very important in California, and to ensure that 100% of electric vehicle batteries sold in the state are either reused or recycled at the end of their life cycle. All these policies are very important because they reduce battery waste, support green growth and help companies to find solutions to manage used batteries. They even sometimes work in cooperation with companies that are innovating in the field of managing used batteries. All together work on sustainable development by taking care of the different pillars that are environment, economy and social justice.
After the reusing process, batteries can be recycled. This process is harder than the first one because there can be technical, economic or logistical barriers. Recycling methods depend on the type of batteries, and the methods can vary from one material to another (Zhou et al., 2020). The aim is to collect the materials and recover them, to possibly use them afterwards. It reduces the need for new raw materials and the impact of the mining industry on earth in general. Plus, it generates a new sustainable value chain for certain materials which can be reused. Recycling is then the last step to close the loop of the battery life cycle.
The process of recycling is composed of the pretreatment, which consists of sorting out the different materials of batteries, then the secondary treatment is about using a chemical solvent to separate the cathode from the aluminium collector foil, and finally, the last step is to dissolve the cathode materials, either by hydro-metallurgy or pyrometallurgy. Nowadays, pyrometallurgy is widely used because of its simplicity and the possibility to recover cobalt, nickel and copper present in batteries, but it is also contested because lithium and aluminium are often lost in the process. However, today, batteries are less and less composed of cobalt (Pagliaro & Meneguzzo, 2019), this is why technologies of battery recycling are developing the process to find a way to reduce lithium waste instead of cobalt. Future systems could reduce new wastes, especially lithium, and reduce pollution as well as environmental risks caused by other materials such as electrolytes.
Finally, some new alternatives to lithium-ion batteries are being thought of (Petrovan, 2021). This would be a good way to limit mining activities and have fewer impacts on the ecosystems and limit all the negative spillover effects. These alternatives are mainly in the research stage because scientists have not yet found how to do that and achieve the same level of performance as lithium-ion batteries. These new alternatives would be very interesting because they could last forever, avoid the stage of reusing and recycling, and save money in investments and processes.
The hydrogen fuel cells are one of the few examples that could be useful. Made with an electrochemical cell, it converts the chemical energy of a fuel and an oxidizing agent into electricity. Some companies like Toyota are working on this project but there is still the problem of manufacturing hydrogen except with water but this process isn’t clean and profitable to produce at the moment.
The second solution considered is bioelectrochemical batteries. It uses “anaerobic bacteria to process acetate with a reduction/oxidation method that releases electrons”. In that case, the process between storing and releasing energy could be endless, because the bacteria could reproduce energy endlessly. But for now, there is just one prototype that is far from the expected performance of a battery.
Finally, solid-state batteries are a technology which uses solid electrodes and solid electrolyte, instead of the liquid found in lithium-ion batteries. They are already used in certain laptops, and pacemakers, because they are safer than other batteries with liquid electrolyte, especially concerning fire risk. Moreover, they can stock higher energy densities compared to other batteries and could last a lifetime. But for now, they are not viable because of the cost of production.
All these ideas could be the solutions of tomorrow, and there are more alternatives considered and researched to avoid the use of lithium and other raw materials, which are mainly the source of many spillover effects.
Ambrose, H. (2020). A Quick Guide to Battery Reuse and Recycling
Ambrose, H. (2020) The Second-Life of Used EV Batteries
European Commission. (2018) The Joint Declaration of Intent for the INNOVATION DEAL on ”From E-Mobility to recycling: the virtuous loop of the electric Vehicle”
Melin, H.E. (2019) State-of-the-art in reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries –A research review
Pagliaro, M., Meneguzzo, F. (2019) Lithium battery reusing and recycling: A circular economy insight
Petrovan B. (2021) 10 alternatives to lithium-ion batteries
Richa, K., W. Babbitt, C., Gaustad, G. (2017) Eco‐Efficiency Analysis of a Lithium‐Ion Battery Waste Hierarchy Inspired by Circular Economy
Zhou, L.F., Yang, D., Du, T., Gong, H., and Luo, W.B. (2020) The Current Process for the Recycling of Spent Lithium-Ion Batteries
Are electric vehicles truthfully environmentally friendly? – A review of life cycle emissions
Text by Aamu Kurjenpuu
Battery technology is included under the category of green technology. A solar panel, electric car or other types of electric vehicle buyer might think their purchase has a positive impact on the environment. Consumers buy the product so that they would consume fewer natural resources but at the same time obtain the same quality and quantity of life. But in reality, does the image created by marketers about the environmental friendliness of a product reflect the real carbon footprint?
The popularity of Electric vehicles (EVs) has grown tremendously in recent years. According to the IPCC (2018) report, fossil fuel-related CO2 emissions for energy purposes caused 69% of global GHG emissions in 2010 and they have grown by several per cent each year (chapter, 5). Due to the increasing problem of air pollution caused by fuel gas usage, the need for clean energy has become evident. In addition, the ease of use, trendiness and attractive designs of the devices have exploded the popularity of EVs. Despite the current COVID- 19 pandemic last year unit sales globally were 3,24 million which is a 143,36 % growth compared to 2,26 million sales the previous year (The electric vehicle world sales database, 2021). Compared globally, V sales growth has been the strongest in Europe. European countries such as Germany have invested in EVs, for climate policy reasons, this has led to 240% growth in sales. It is expected that EV sales worldwide will exceed 5 million sales in 2021, this would be a 55% increase from last year (The electric vehicle world sales database, 2021).
Due to the high demand for energy storage systems lithium, cobalt, nickel and other metals are extracted to an increasing extent (Gil-Alana and Monge, 2019) (see Blog post Mining industry). Batteries consume 65% of the lithium sold in the global end-use markets. Global consumption of lithium in 2019 increased by 18% from the previous year (Jaskula, 2020). Extraction of these battery materials has significant adverse environmental effects (see Blog post Mining industry). In the next section, we will address the sustainability of this future transportation. When it comes to climate change, it’s important to know if electric cars emit less carbon and by how much.
Life cycle analysis of an electric vehicle
Electric vehicle emissions are based on a life cycle analysis which consists of three different phases: the manufacturing, the use phase, and the recycling phase. This three-part analysis seeks to take into account all emissions related to EV production.
The key processes in this phase are mining, material transformation, vehicle part manufacturing, and vehicle assembly. Studies have shown (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016, Ellingsen, Hung & Strømman, 2017, Raugei & Winfield, 2018, Wang et al. 2013, Hao et al. 2017, Qiao et al. 2019) evidently that internal combustion engines vehicles (ICEV) emit less carbon dioxide per car in the production phase than EVs. It is estimated that compared to traditional vehicles, electric car manufacturing produces 30 per cent more GHG emissions (Hao et al. 2017). The difference in emissions is due to the high energy demand of battery manufacturing (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016) According to Wang et al. (2017) the production accounts for nearly 70 per cent of EVs carbon emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from material manufacturing accounted for 20% of overall battery production emissions on average and aluminium production was responsible for 40 % of these emissions (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). The most energy-consuming process is the battery cell assembly and pacing (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). A comprehensive Chinese study by Qiao et al, 2019 estimated that 1,300 kg EV, which battery weighs 188.7 kg emits 3.2 tons of CO2. The EV manufacturing phase CO2 emissions are dependent on the type of energy used in the process. The higher the ratio of fossil fuel used in manufacturing, the higher the GHG emissions. Emissions from batteries produced in China are particularly high as their electricity mix is mostly generated from coal power. This is particularly worrisome as China is the largest producer of EV batteries and is seeking to strengthen its position as a manufacturer in the future.
The estimate of manufacturing phase emissions cannot be accurately generalized, as the production of different types of batteries produces different amounts of emissions and the type of electricity generation mix results in different amounts of GHGs. In addition, the battery life span strongly affects the significance of emissions from battery production. This is not well estimated due to large uncertainties in the current performance of lithium batteries as well as large variations in the life cycle of chemicals (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016).
The subject has been studied a lot however, research data on the subject varies widely due to variation on bill-of-materials, supply chain, different production processes, and the technologies, the size of the battery and the geographical location where it is produced. In addition, the battery life cycle analysis is extremely difficult to assess due to the large gaps in the data (Qiang et al. 2019).
It is to be noted that, the emissions from the manufacturing process of an electric car are higher than those from fossil-fuelled vehicles if the vehicle life is assumed to be 150,000 kilometres (Hasan et al. 2021). This is equivalent to two years of car use.
Emissions of an EV manufactured in China (Qiao et al, 2019)
The entire life cycle GHG emissions of an EV are about 41.0 t CO2eq
Emissions from electric car production are 13 (tCO₂)
Internal combustion engine vehicle life cycle GHG emissions are 50.0 t CO2eq
ICEVs in the manufacturing phase emit about 10.5 (tCO₂)
The use phase
Use phase emissions are exclusively dependent on the way the electricity is generated; is it from renewable or fossil sources. In comparison to internal combustion engine cars, EVs have lower emission during the use phase, if the electricity is generated by low-carbon sources.
According to Hall and Lutsey (2018), an electric car’s manufacturing-phase emissions would be paid back in 2 years of driving with European average grid electricity compared to a typical vehicle. It must be noted that the use phase emissions are directly dependent on the type of power that is distributed to a local power grid (fossil fuels vs. renewables). This is evident by Qaio et al. (2019) study which found out that in China 59- 62% of the life cycle GHG emission comes in the use phase because most of the electricity in the grid is produced by coal. Wang (2013) study suggested that over 90% of China’s electricity mix should be from nuclear power to undercut combustion engine vehicle emissions.
In the use phase, if production and recycling phases are not included, EVs could reduce emissions between 87% and 90%, compared to the ICV use phase, if using clean energy sources (Hasan et al, 2020). According to many studies, there are no significant emission reduction effects if the vehicles are charged mostly on fossil fuel energy. Athanasopoulou, Bikas, & Stavropoulos (2018) study about EV emissions in Europe found out that:
- Albania produces 100% of its energy by hydropower. As a result of which the EV use phase emissions were only 0.8-1.6 gCO2/km according to the in-use values.
- Estonia’s electric grid is powered 88% by fossil fuels this resulted in 120-226 g gCO2/km based on the in-use values
- ICEV produces on average 122.1 gCO2/km
- In other words, in Estonia, the use of EV cars produces more than 140-150 times more grams of CO2 emissions per km than in Albania.
- The emission difference between EV and ICEV used in Estonia is only about 1%
It must be taken into consideration, if EV models become larger, heavier and have larger batteries Phase 1 and Phase 2 will pollute more in terms of GHG emissions (Qaio, et al. 2019). Lastly, climate and weather also have an impact on pollution emitted during the usage phase, as it affects battery life and charging efficiency (Ambrose & Kendall, 2016). Due to a large number of variables, we can state that it is difficult to define the precise GHG emission from the use phase.
The recycling phase
The following are the most important processes in the recycling phase: vehicle dismantling, vehicle recycling, battery recycling and material recovery.
The rate of battery recycling has been extremely poor. Up till 2011, only 5% of lithium batteries were recycled in Europe (Binnemans et al. 2013). As EVs have only gained popularity in the past six years, most car batteries have not yet gone obsolete, but it is becoming a cumulative problem in the years to come (see Blogpost Corporate Social Responsibility on battery recycling). Differences in battery manufacturing, chemistry and differing recycling methods have led to the low recycling rate (Huang et al. 2018). For recycling to become the standard, corrective steps must be enforced.
It must be noted that the battery chemistry affects recycling; this is why there is some uncertainty about how recycled materials could affect carbon footprints (Hall & Lutsey, 2018). Also, the recycling techniques, assessments and calculation methods differ widely, which makes it difficult to perform literature-based analysis of the actual emissions and emission reductions from recycling.
The following estimates describe EVs produced and recycled in China because it is where the most EVs are produced and used in terms of quantity (Statista, 2021).
Multiple studies have shown it is possible to reduce the life cycle GHG emissions of electric cars with qualified recycling measures (Yang, 2020, Dunn et al, 2015). That said, EV recycling produces more emissions than ICEV recycling (Wang et al. 2013). It has been projected that recycling produces about 1.8 tonnes of emissions for a fossil-fuelled car and 2.4 tonnes for an electric car (Qiao et al. 2019). According to Hao et al. (2017) in China in 2025 with improved recycling methods, EV made from fully recycled products would produce only 9.8 t. of carbon. Thus, lowering the total GHG emissions by 34% (GHG emissions from the production of an EV with primary sourced materials and a lithium battery are about 14.9 t CO2eq).
The contributing factors of this GHG reduction are steel, aluminium and battery cathode recycling, but the most notable emission reduction is achieved by recycling batteries, which is up to 48% lower compared to a battery made of virgin materials (Hao et al. 2017). This emission reduction of life cycle GHG emissions, by recycling, are based on an optimized hydrometallurgical process adaptation. It is worth noting that, it is debated that EVs that are recycled in China do not achieve these goals at the moment, because the recycling process is highly energy consuming and China’s electricity mix is heavily coal-based.
As stated before, aluminium is one of the most polluting substances in the car manufacturing phase, due to aluminium cathode materials high energy intensity in the battery assembly. For this reason, aluminium recycling is also one of the most GHG emitting steps of the recycling phase. As a result, the use of aluminium is still debatable (Wang et al, 2013).
Recycling lithium batteries is the most energy-consuming and GHG emitting process of this phase and is responsible for 0.7 tonnes of emissions. It is important to develop efficient and effective recycling methods as the batteries contain large amounts of metals and toxic electrolytes (Ordoñez et al. 2016). There are multiple methods for recovering noble metals from electrochemical devices. However, none of them is well established in the industry and there is no standardised method of recycling. Moreover, the continuously evolving lithium battery technologies make the recycling methods quickly outdated (Ordoñez et al. 2016, Gaines 2018). In addition, the process produces environmentally hazardous by-products, which is difficult to handle, neutralize and recycle (Huang et al. 2018). Environmental burden depends on the recycling approaches, which is why it would be important to standardize the recycling method.
Better policies regarding standardization of materials, and better designs aiming toward easy disassembly and separation is necessary for the efficiency of reuse processing and reduction of emissions. New practices should promote easy material and component recovery, with low energy consumption and minimal environmental impact (Huang et al. 2018). This is especially important as EVs will become more common in the future. To make sure that the environmental benefits of EVs can be fully taken into account, we need more regulations requiring automakers to use more recycled materials in EVs, particularly steel, aluminium and cathode materials.
Conclusions – Are EVs better for the environment?
The fact is that EVs have immense environmental impacts such as GHG emissions, landscape destruction, and impacts on local ecosystems and water resources. Regardless of this EVs on average produce 18 % less GHG emissions in a lifetime, than an ICEV (Qiao et al. 2019). By developing an electricity mix towards cleaner energy production, the GHG reduction can be more remarkable in all of the phases. This would be especially important in China as it is the largest vehicle manufacturer and has the largest vehicle market. To develop the sustainability of electric vehicles, the industry needs standardised end-of-life regulations for auto batteries- and other materials. More standardized battery design and manufacturing, as well as recycling methods, will improve material recovery and reduce recycling emissions (Huang et. al. 2018). Also regulation on how many recycled parts companies should use to assemble an EV would be an important step to ensure emission reductions. Setting recycling standards is critically important to offset the high GHG emissions produced in the manufacturing phase.
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Corporate Social Responsibility on battery recycling
Text by Tina Krause
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has become a fundamental part of the major companies around the world (Antweiler, 2014). Today, CSR and sustainability efforts aren’t just about what happens within a company and its stakeholders, but it concerns the whole supply chain, from suppliers of raw material to recycling (Dai et al., 2020).
Nowadays, almost all companies have a CSR policy to show what kind of practices are followed to ensure a sustainable and ethical operation. Recycling is thus an important component in a company’s CSR strategy as it helps to improve the environmental efforts and replaces the need of extracting raw material (Dai et al., 2020; Panda et al., 2017). Expanding the responsibility to recycling and reusing, for example when it comes to critical minerals, can hence increase the sustainability of a company.
Recycling batteries is expensive, perhaps not something that producers want to take on, so why should a producer bother recycling? Today CSR and sustainability can be a huge part of the marketing of a company, and if the CSR contribution to the brand’s reputation and attraction of new loyal customers is not enough, perhaps the savings from the costs that usually come with extracting raw materials can be a motivator (Antweiler, 2014; Nordelöf et al., 2014; Panda et al., 2017).
Overall, when it comes to batteries used in electric vehicles, components usually last longer than in other cars, meaning that the impact of material sourcing is smaller, hence producing less waste (Dawn, 2021). However, we are soon facing the first production wave of batteries that are reaching the end of their life cycle. So, the question is if and how, big companies like Tesla, are taking on the responsibility of the huge amount of waste that they are producing?
Policies to support recycling
One way to encourage recycling programs is to shift responsibility from waste managers to producers. Shifting the responsibility over to the producers of the batteries might make the companies more interested and willing to design their products in a way that makes it easier for them to recycle and reuse, hence not only focusing on the performance. Also, implementing policies that engage the customer in the business, in this case through the recycling process, will only make the customers more loyal and connected to the company (Antweiler, 2014). As the image of a company, today is one of the most crucial elements in a successful business it is important to include the customers as much as possible.
Furthermore, recycling needs to be integrated into the supply chain, and as a consequence of CSR development, many companies are using reverse supply chain, the collection of used products for recycling (Panda et al., 2017). However, it would not just be about a company’s reverse supply chain but a complete circular or closed-loop supply chain, relating to CSR remanufacturing which not only relieves resource shortages but also mitigates environmental pollution (Dai et al., 2020; Panda et al., 2017). Collecting the used batteries, referring to companies selling electric vehicles, shouldn’t be too difficult since there is most often a register on who owns the cars and where in the world they are located. The problem would rather lay on the logistics of the collection, which companies should put more focus on. For example, who would take care of the collection, and at the same time, address questions on how to avoid unnecessary transportation of the material across the globe, to mitigate the environmental effects. A remanufacturing supply chain where the manufacturers bear the recycling responsibility would hence also mean an extension of the supply chain, which always brings more complexity and challenges to the company, but on the other hand, is an easy win on the road to more responsible business management (Dai et al., 2020).
Tesla is an American electric vehicle manufacturer that has also branched out into solar energy products (Tesla, 2021). The company is the most advanced in its field, wanting to accelerate clean transport and clean energy production, while at the same time also contributing to the accelerating amount of battery waste. The consumption of metals and minerals makes the company a contributor to the negative effects of mining, hence, the aspect of recycling and reusing should be important for the company, not only to mitigate the negative effect but also to promote the circular economy and end our dependency on non-renewable resources. So, what is Tesla doing in terms of battery recycling?
Tesla has made it clear that they want to aim towards a closed-loop recycling system where lithium, cobalt, aluminium, copper, and steel will all be recovered from retired batteries (Forfar, 2018). According to the company’s impact report, they recycle all of their used cells, modules and battery packs, recycling 100% of the lithium-ion batteries (Tesla, 2019). The newest generation of batteries, aimed at eliminating cobalt, is highly recyclable. About 90% of the battery can be recycled, but even after its life in the vehicle, the battery can be used for other purposes like energy storage (Dawn, 2021). However, Tesla also states in the report that only high-value elements that are recycled are re-introduced into their supply chain (Tesla, 2019). Meaning that the metals and minerals are being reused but materials like plastics, and other materials that are difficult to recycle, will only be reused in Tesla’s supply chain when technology improves.
Tesla has partnered up with third-party recyclers to recover the valuable metals, to recycle the products back to the original raw materials, flowing in a circular loop (Tesla, 2019). For example, European Tesla locations partner with a mining company called Umicore which uses a closed-loop recycling strategy, meaning that the recycled products usually can be used for their original purpose. Tesla is also developing a unique battery recycling system at Gigafactory Nevada that will process both battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries (Tesla, 2019).
So far, Tesla has only received a limited number of batteries back from the field. Most batteries that Tesla recycles today are coming from different phases of the production process, such as quality control, and it will take some time before the company starts getting vehicle batteries in larger volumes (Tesla, 2019). Therefore, it is still too early to tell if Tesla actually will be able to ensure that the recycling responsibility will be met. For this to happen Tesla also wants, and needs, to set up an incentive program for customers who return their old battery modules. As an example, Tesla has stated that customers do not pay extra for recycling the battery pack (White, 2020).
Lastly, we need to be critical of these numbers and statements on who is recycling what and how much. The fact is that the market for electric vehicles is a very new one, and hence, recycling so far hasn’t been that demanding. Recycling 100 % might not mean much if we are only talking about the small percentage of cars or batteries that have reached the end of their life cycle. A battery in a car will usually stay in the car for the life cycle of the vehicle, which may be up to 15 to 20 years, and as the Tesla production took off in 2008, these vehicles are not due to reach the end of life until 2023–2028 (Forfar, 2018). Additionally, today greenwashing is something that occurs more often than we might think (Antweiler, 2014). Hence, we need to be critical towards companies marketing through sustainability, as these can easily provide misleading, or twist information for the benefit of the company.
Tesla is a good example of a company that is trying to solve future challenges, but at the same time, creating new ones. It is interesting to see how companies like Tesla, which are marketing themselves with sustainability at the core of their operation, are going to tackle these problems that haven’t even emerged yet. Also, questions like; at what point is working for a more sustainable future not sustainable anymore and, when does profit become more important than sustainability, are some that many companies today should answer and consider in their CSR policies.
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