A year ago we surveyed fifty different organisations who deal with end-of-life cars, and found that less than a third had made any preparations to deal with electric cars.
So it might seem reasonable for the University of Birmingham to suggest that we face ‘a potential electric vehicle battery mountain in the UK’. But I strongly disagree. The report focussed on the challenge of capturing and reusing metals like cobalt, nickel, manganese and lithium, but it is possible to capture these metals at specialist centres in Europe, and technology is developing very quickly on this front.
What’s missing isn’t the advanced technology to reprocess rare minerals, but a greater understanding at ground level – among dealers, dismantlers and scrap merchants – about what to do with a battery electric car.
Concerns about costs, safety and additional resources compared to normal practice are holding people back. A high disposal cost for lithium batteries goes against the accepted norm that an end-of-life vehicle brings in a positive value for scrap dealers and owners, so many sites won’t accept them at this stage.
An additional factor is that electric cars have simply not reached the end of their lives in any significant volume. They are lasting much longer than predicted, and the SMMT has recorded that early mainstream electric cars from 18 years ago are still going strong.
But it’s only a matter of time before we see more end-of-life electric vehicles, as one in ten new cars sold are now electric.
Recent thought is that even for earlier cars, end-of-life volume is likely to occur within the next five years. We will still have batteries to deal with in the meantime – the result of malfunctions or crashes – but our feeling is that it will be a progressive build up as opposed to a sudden explosion in numbers as suggested by the Birmingham report. This outcome will mirror the growth in skills and awareness of recycling processes, handling and routes.
At Cawleys we have been dealing with lithium batteries since 2012, and our decommissioning room for EV batteries has been operational for nearly two years. We have developed new skills in training, handling and shipping lithium batteries, and have established routes for end-of-life or second life use of electric batteries.
We can process a battery at the highest danger level by splitting it down into modules; it’s safer to work with 20 30V units than one 600V battery.
We do this in a commercially controlled environment, because there is a significant safety risk when it comes to handling lithium batteries, and there is already an undercurrent of private second use where individuals are experimenting with electric vehicles and power packs. This private repurposing process is likely further delaying increased volumes of end-of-life electric vehicles, by keeping them out of the hands of disposal experts.
The overall picture is positive, and it’s alarmist, unhelpful and untrue to say that we face a potential electric vehicle battery mountain in the UK. We should be confident that electric vehicles can be recycled well, and not let concerns about battery mountains spook the market on the consumer or trade side.
Alan Colledge is Senior Manager at waste management firm Cawleys Hazardous Services