With China Producing Half the World’s New Energy Vehicles, Retired Batteries May Bring ‘Explosive Pollution’

July 12, 2021 Updated: July 14, 2021

As China’s new energy vehicle production grows rapidly, with half of global production now coming from China, the huge amount of retired batteries could bring “disastrous” environmental problems  and “explosive pollution,” says state-owned media Xinhua.

According to Xinhua, the cumulative retired batteries in China will had reached 200,000 tons (about 25 GWh) in 2020 and will grow to 780,000 tons (about 116 GWh) by 2025.

However, more than half of the retired batteries are not recycled via proper channels, but are “snapped up” by unqualified small factories that don’t invest much in environmental protection, the report says.

Generally speaking, the service life of new energy vehicle batteries is about 5-8 years. If the retired batteries are not properly disposed of, they will bring disastrous pollution to the environment, despite the fact that these new energy vehicles were designed to be “clean” and environmentally friendly.

Professor Wu Feng at Beijing Institute of Technology told Chinese media, “A 20-gram cell phone battery can pollute three standard swimming pools of water, and if abandoned on the land, it can pollute 1 square kilometer of land for about 50 years.”

Compared to cell phone batteries, the pollution caused by the batteries of large new energy vehicles is more serious.

These batteries contain heavy metals such as cobalt, manganese, and nickel, which do not degrade on their own. Manganese, for example, pollutes the air, water, and soil, and more than 500 micrograms per cubic meter in the air can cause manganese poisoning.

In 2010, there was a drinking water emergency in Guangdong Province, China, when the manganese in the drinking water exceeded standard safe levels.

Another major source of pollution in lithium ion batteries is the electrolyte. The lithium hexafluorophosphate in the electrolyte is easily hydrolyzed in the air to produce phosphorus pentafluoride, hydrogen fluoride, and other harmful substances, which is a major threat to soil and water resources.

Phosphorus pentafluoride is a strong irritant to human skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, and is also a very reactive compound that will hydrolyze violently in humid air to produce toxic and corrosive white fumes of hydrogen fluoride.

Illegal and Improper Disposal of Used and Waste Batteries

In mainland China, it is not uncommon for battery electrolytes to be dumped directly without treatment.

In 2015, the People’s Court of Tianhe District in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, handed down a verdict on a case of illegal disposal of used and waste batteries.

According to the verdict, the defendant dismantled the used batteries and dumped the electrolyte directly on the ground. The pH value, zinc, copper, chromium, lead, and other water pollutants in the on-site samples exceeded the discharge standards stipulated in the “Guangdong Local Standard Water Pollution Discharge Limits,” with the concentration of zinc exceeding the standard by a factor of 4.73, copper by 5.29, lead by 5.42, and cadmium by 27.1.

In 2016, the first battery pollution case in Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province, went to court and the man involved was sued for directly dumping electrolyte. In November 2016, he was sentenced to six months in prison.

In 2018, police in Shenyang City, Liaoning province,  seized an illegal lead refinery in an industrial park in Tieling City, Liaoning, and seized 330 tons of waste batteries.

The police found that the illegal lead refinery “used force to dismantle the batteries improperly” and illegally discharged 50 tons of sulfuric acid directly onto nearby land, causing serious and irreversible pollution.

The above cases are just three examples. There have been more reports about the discarded power batteries causing much pollution to the water, land, and air in China.

Li Yongwang, general manager of Synfuels China, said in an interview with the Chinese media Yicai that the batteries of new energy vehicles are likely to cause far more pollution than the exhaust pollution of fuel vehicles.

He says that while exhaust pollution can be controlled, recycling new energy batteries is difficult, the cost is high, and after the total volume of electric vehicles reach 10 percent of the total number of vehicles, “catastrophic” problems will occur.

Cao Hongbin, a researcher at the Institute of Process Engineering of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state-owned media Xinhua that as the discarded batteries still contain high voltages, ranging from 300 to 1000 volts. If they are improperly handled during the recycling, dismantling, and processing stages, it could result in fires, explosions, heavy metal pollution, and organic emissions, among other things.

Less than Half of Retired Batteries Recycled via Proper Channels

China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology released the “Interim Measures for the Management of New Energy Vehicle Power Battery Recycling” in 2018, placing the main responsibility for power battery recycling on vehicle manufacturers and including 27 enterprises in the list of those meeting the “Industry Specification of Comprehensive Utilization of New Energy Vehicle Waste Power Battery,” or the “white list.”

However, state-owned media People’s Daily pointed out that many retired batteries were taken by unqualified small manufacturers at “high prices.”

Feng Xingya, general manager of GAC group, told People’s Daily that “all major factories are trying to recycle the batteries, but not many are really able to get back any.”

According to Chinese media Caixin, Yang Xulai, professor at Hefei College and former vice director of Guoxuan High-Tech Institute, said that the waste and used batteries mainly come via three channels: automobile sales and service shops, scrapped cars, and residual products of battery enterprises.

He said, only the residual products of battery enterprises have entered the proper recycling channels, while nobody knows where the batteries from other channels go.

Bao Wei, general manager of a whitelisted company, Zhejiang Huayou Recycling Technology, said that currently, less than half of the retired batteries are being recycled via proper channels.

Rapid Growth

While the problem of battery recycling has not yet been solved, the number of retired batteries is increasing rapidly with the rapid development of new energy vehicles in China.

The number of new energy vehicles in China has increased from 75,000 units in 2014 to 1,367,000 units in 2020. And in May 2021, China’s new energy vehicles continue to set new monthly production and sales records.

According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, by the end of May 2021, the number of new energy vehicles in China is about 5.8 million, accounting for about half of the total number of new energy vehicles in the world.

This is accompanied by the rapid development of the battery industry and the massive increase in retired batteries.

In 2020, the cumulative installed capacity of batteries in China reached 63.6 GWh, up 2.3 percent year-on-year.

According to Everbright Securities (pdf), from 2020 to 2060, the cumulative demand for lithium batteries will reach 25TWh. As 1GWh battery corresponds to 600 tons of lithium carbonate, the demand for lithium carbonate will reach 15 million tons.

Aggressive Industry Policies

The massive increase in retired batteries cannot be separated from the explosive growth of new energy vehicles, which in turn cannot be separated from the aggressive industry policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In 2009, the CCP’s Development and Reform Commission, the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched the “Ten Cities, One Thousand Vehicles” project, which aimed to launch 1,000 new energy vehicles in 10 cities each year in three years through financial subsidies. These cities would then become “model cities” for other cities to follow suit.

Since then, the CCP has introduced a series of policies to support the development of the new energy vehicle industry.

In 2014, the State Council approved tax exemptions on purchases of new energy vehicles, and in April 2015, the Ministry of Finance issued the “Notice on Financial Support Policies for the Promotion and Application of New Energy Vehicles from 2016 to 2020,” which provided subsidies to consumers who purchase new energy vehicles.

In September 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Ministry of Finance, and five other departments jointly issued the “Regulations for the Parallel Management of Average Fuel Consumption of Passenger Vehicle Enterprises and New Energy Vehicle Points,” also known as the “Dual Points” regulation. The Regulations stated that if a car manufacturer did not produce new energy vehicles or did not produce enough, it would be punished by being suspended from producing high fuel consumption cars.

Before the introduction of this regulation, car manufacturers would only be suspended from producing, or getting permission to produce, high fuel consumption cars if they fail to reach the standard of the average fuel consumption.

“These policies resulted in a fast-growing industry,” Hong Kong financial analyst Jiang Tianming told the Epoch Times. “However, if the retired batteries cannot be recycled effectively and environmentally friendly, the statement that new energy cars are ‘clean’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ is  undoubtedly a false proposition.”

Kate Jiang
Kate Jiang is a financial analyst and an Epoch Times contributor based in Hong Kong.
Jennifer Zeng is a freelance contributor to The Epoch Times.