In the past decade, China has rapidly expanded its “green” new energy vehicle (NEV) industry. But recycling and disposing of hundreds of thousands of tons of used car batteries has become a pressing issue because of environmental concerns.
Growth in China’s NEV industry took off in 2014, when nearly 78,500 NEVs were produced and roughly 75,000 were sold. As of September, China’s NEV registration reached 6.78 million, of which 5.52 million are fully electric vehicles. The NEV industry predicts that its production and sales growth rate will remain at more than 40 percent in the next five years, prompting the question of how to best manage the growing numbers of discarded lithium batteries from the vehicles.
Industry data shows that the service life of lithium batteries used in electric vehicles is generally five to eight years, and the service life under warranty is four to six years. That means tens of thousands of electric car batteries will soon need to be discarded or recycled—and millions more down the road.
According to the latest data from the China Automotive Technology and Research Center, the cumulative decommissioning of China’s electric car batteries reached 200,000 tons in 2020. That figure is estimated to climb to 780,000 tons by 2025.
Presently, most end-of-life batteries are traded in the unregulated black market, raising serious environmental concerns. If such batteries aren’t handled properly, they could cause soil, air, and water pollution.
“A 20-gram cell phone battery can pollute a water body equivalent to three standard swimming pools. If it is buried in the ground, it can pollute one square kilometer (247 acres) of land for about 50 years,” said Wu Feng, a professor at Beijing Institute of Technology.
Electric car batteries are many times larger than cell phone batteries.
According to Li Yongwang, a chemical engineering expert in China, pollution caused by NEV batteries is very likely far worse than the exhaust pollution from gasoline-run vehicles.
If they’re buried or discarded at will, they aren’t only toxic for the environment, according to Li. They’re a direct danger to people’s lives, given that they can explode from heat, he said.
Recycling of power batteries has become a pressing issue in China, and it’s considered a weak point that Chinese authorities didn’t adequately consider when they heavily promoted the NEV industry.
There are currently two different methods for recycling electric car batteries: One is to recover valuable raw materials after disassembly, while the other is secondary utilization in other fields.
At present, automobile power batteries are mainly divided into two types: ternary lithium batteries and lithium iron phosphate batteries. Ternary lithium batteries have a relatively high content of rare metals such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese, and it’s more worthwhile to recover these. The main ingredients in lithium iron phosphate batteries are lithium and iron, which are less worthy of recovering. This type of battery is often recycled through secondary utilization, as its service life is longer.
Regardless of the type of battery, the recycling market in China is huge. Orient Securities has estimated that China’s power battery recycling market, including the two methods of recycling, is expected to reach $37 billion by 2025.
In August, Chinese authorities issued the “Administrative Measures for the Secondary Utilization of Power Batteries for New Energy Vehicles,” requiring NEV manufacturers to establish power battery recycling channels.
However, these carmakers only bear the extra costs and reap no profits from adding battery recycling to their business. Chinese state media outlets cited an expert as saying that because power batteries aren’t produced by NEV companies, these companies have no incentive to recycle end-of-life batteries.
In addition, according to Chinese state media outlets, there are a series of problems associated with the current recycling policies: non-uniform recycling standards, non-standard processes, inconsistent resource utilization efficiency, non-uniform pricing, and an unclear distribution of profits.
Another problem is that, although there are many companies engaged in battery recycling in China, there are only 27 companies that have the qualifications for secondary utilization and the recycling of batteries used in electric cars.
The huge market, coupled with slow official actions, thus created favorable conditions for a black market. Presently, countless services can be found on Xianyu, China’s largest second-hand commodity trading platform, when searching for used car batteries.
On this black market, power battery recycling is generally priced in tons. According to Chinese state media outlets, the recycling price of power lithium batteries ranges from $1,250 to $1,563 per ton. Most of these businesses purchase end-of-life batteries from all over the country.
In comparison, prices set by officially designated companies are often lower than on the black market, as the secret companies are able to cut costs by evading regulatory measures, according to China Energy News. As a result, the official companies can’t even obtain any batteries. An industry expert told Beijing News that about 80 percent of end-of-life power batteries flow into black markets for recycling.
When recycling isn’t an option for black market companies, the environment loses out. In 2018, authorities in the city of Tieling, Liaoning province, China, seized an illegal lead smelting plant and 330 tons of waste batteries. Workers at the plant dismantled storage batteries and discharged 50 tons of sulfuric acid directly into nearby land without any treatment, causing irreversible pollution.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.