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Sustainable Futures: batteries driving a green shift

13 Sep 2021

What happens when an electric vehicle meets the end of the road? It’s a question that any company with aspirations to ‘go green’, in any shape or form, should be interested in.


While an EV releases no emissions when being driven, it’s the mining, making and disposing of their batteries that could become a disaster as these vehicles become the norm. 


Most components of an electric vehicle are the same as a regular car, it’s the batteries that distinguish them. Traditional lead-acid batteries can have up to 98% of their materials recycled if disposed of correctly. That hasn’t quite been the case for electric batteries. So far, at least. 


Since electric cars are still relatively new, it will take 15 to 20 years before recycling becomes critical. But the implications go well beyond cars. The World Economic Forum views a circular battery value chain as the major driver to meet the Paris Agreement, as well as providing access to 600 million people who don’t currently have access to electricity and creating 10 million safe and sustainable jobs across the globe. Figuring out how to recycle electric batteries offers advantages beyond mobility.


For EV makers, recycling has a real value proposition: it’s a guarantee that critical or price-sensitive elements, like cobalt or lithium, can be retrieved. Sometimes called “urban mining”, reclaiming these materials will ready manufacturing for disruption. Because whether it’s trade wars and political instability, another pandemic, extreme weather or the ongoing effects of climate change, circular practices like urban mining will become imperative. 


The biggest disadvantage of urban mining is that it’s yet to be profitable. But with electric car sales projected to become 70% of the global total by 2040 (they made up 4% last year) the demand for these elements will boost supplies in circulation. Add that lithium, cobalt and nickel mines can take half a decade to start production, and the risk of a gap between supply and demand increases. 


A 2018 study in China examined the recycling of gold and copper from televisions and found the process was 13 times more economical than virgin mining. In-product materials also have a higher strike rate and appear in higher concentrations than, say, in rock or ore. So at a critical mass urban mining should turn out to be a more productive way to extract materials. Automation and robotics will also make circular manufacturing more viable, scalable and inevitable. 


At the same time, any shortage in materials will force manufacturers to reassess the design and return of these batteries. There might be ways to extend the life of these batteries, or consumer incentives to return them (much like Apple’s buy-back scheme) or trace these batteries to the developing countries where cars are often exported for reuse. 


This future-proofing through reclaiming materials illustrates the true concept of sustainability. While we often take sustainability to mean “environmental sustainability” it’s a term that better describes the ability of interacting systems to exist in harmony. Sustainability isn’t just minimising your carbon footprint, it’s an integrated and long-term approach to environmental, social and economic issues. It allows profits to grow, but not at the expense of the planet or its people.


The EV dilemma teaches us that the lustre of green technology can’t be accepted at face value. We need to interrogate the entire lifecycle of our green inventions. There are examples everywhere of needing to re-design the creation, disposal and very nature of the things we buy. Compostable coffee cups are also an excellent idea — but if they’re not disposed of in organic waste bins and sent to industrial compost facilities they’re likely to end up in landfill. There, these cups will still break down and contribute fewer greenhouse gases but, like all organic waste, will still release methane into the atmosphere. Even if the product is brilliant, it needs a reliable system around it.


Similarly, our earliest solar panels may be coming to their last days. While these are theoretically recyclable, as yet we don’t quite have the demand and widespread infrastructure to do it. A long-term solution might be to change the tech itself. For instance, solar glass could replace all the windows and skylights in your home and still generate energy in the way a solar panel does. Our technology can evolve to have a more seamless life, not just end-of-life. Our green innovations need to be more than good products. They need to be part of good systems. We need to look at all parts of design, manufacturing, use and disposal to create circular and resilient economies.


As for EVs? This week Tesla announced that, by partnering with third-party recyclers, they could reclaim approximately 92% of materials in their batteries. It has already ‘mined’ 1300 tonnes of nickel, 400 tons of copper and 80 tons of cobalt. Redwood, founded by an ex-Tesla executive, has been contracted to recycle scrap from Panasonic’s battery production for Tesla too. Even if the issue isn’t a present danger, it has become dangerous for brands to look no further than the present. Tesla is already protecting itself against disruption while fortifying their product and purpose.


Businesses of all types can use the EV battery as an example of how easy it is to be seduced by green products without seeing them in the context of their lifecycle. Let’s not limit ourselves to eco-friendliness when there’s true sustainability at stake.

As a futurist, I have advised sustainability leaders in the automotive industry like BMW, MINI, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes Benz, and Ford. Feel free to reach out for sustainability consulting / presentations today. 

Gartner Futurist Anders Sörman-Nilsson


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