Can Electric Car Batteries Be Recycled?

Can Electric Car Batteries Be Recycled?

Modern electric car batteries are massive lithium-ion batteries, which are recyclable. Depending on the recycling process, up to 100% of the lithium in the battery can be preserved. Most of the other battery components – metals like copper and iron – are also easy to recover, regardless of the recycling process.

However, by the time that most batteries have reached the end of their lifespan in an electric car, they can still hold over 80% of their original charge capacity. This means that they are usually reused in the power grid (or for some other use) before they make it to a recycling plant.

Read on to find out more about the recycling process of batteries, how to preserve battery life, and whether or not electric cars really are environmentally friendly.

Differences Between Electric and Conventional Car Batteries

The most common type of conventional car battery is the lead-acid battery. The technology behind the lead-acid battery is relatively ancient, dating back to 1859.

Conventional 12 Volt Car Battery (Can Electric Car Batteries Be Recycled?)
A Conventional 12-Volt Car Battery (Lead-Acid Battery)

The lithium-ion battery is much newer. A commercially viable lithium-ion battery didn’t exist until the late 1990s.

Auto manufacturers use lithium-ion batteries in electric cars because they’re generally more efficient than lead-acid batteries, as well as less damaging to the environment.

Nissan Leaf Electric Car Battery Pack
Battery Pack of a Nissan Leaf EV / Image courtesy of Gereon Meyer / CC BY-SA 4.0

Compared to lead-acid batteries, lithium-ion batteries charge faster, have a better weight-to-energy storage ratio and perform well even at extreme temperatures. Lithium-ion batteries also last much longer than lead-acid batteries. A lithium-ion battery can last as long as 10 years before needing replacement, while most lead-acid batteries will only work for three to five years.

The major downside to lithium-ion batteries is the cost of materials. At their most fundamental, lead-acid batteries are made up of lead plates and water mixed with sulfuric acid. Lithium-ion batteries need lithium to function. This metal is both expensive and most commonly harvested or mined from South Africa and the Andes, where conditions for workers can be significantly less safe than they are for miners in North America.

The simplicity of lead-acid batteries does mean that they are easier to recycle than lithium-ion batteries. And lead-acid batteries are commonly recycled — nearly 100% of car batteries make it to a scrap yard or recycling plant — which is ideal, because lead is highly toxic. But even processing lead-acid batteries can be a health risk. More than 3 million people die annually in the developing world from complications as a result of processing lead-acid batteries.

While there are some risks associated with recycling lithium-ion batteries, the process is generally safer — although it is a little more complicated than recycling lead-acid batteries.

In the lithium-ion battery recycling process, the batteries first get fully discharged. The electrolyte — the lithium-ion portion of the battery — is then destroyed. Some recycling processes freeze the lithium with liquid nitrogen to prevent any electrical or chemical reactions from taking place after crushing the lithium. Workers then disassemble the lithium-ion battery and extract valuable components like cobalt, nickel and copper. Not all of the lithium is recoverable, but the amount that is will probably return in another battery.

Protocol for Recycling Electric Car Batteries

Spent lithium-ion batteries are relatively harmless, but you should still recycle them when possible. The lithium inside the battery — along with other valuable materials like cobalt, nickel and magnesium — will be more useful in another battery than sitting around your house.

You shouldn’t trash your lithium-ion batteries or toss them in a blue recycling bin. While they are safe when left alone, punctured or damaged batteries can leach harmful chemicals into the environment. And the high temperatures and pressure your battery will encounter when transported from your home to the recycling center can pose a fire risk.

The best way to recycle lithium-ion batteries is to take them to a recycling center yourself. You may have some trouble finding a local recycling company that will recycle your lithium-ion battery, however. Lithium-ion batteries are much newer than the design of the centuries-old conventional car battery, and fewer recycling companies have the required equipment and experience to process them.

If you’re having difficulty finding a local recycling center, services like Earth911 or Call2Recycle can help you find a recycling company that’s able to handle your lithium-ion battery. Be ready to pay for recycling though, as some recycling plants charge a small fee to recycle anything that contains heavy metals.

Can Old EV Batteries Be Repurposed?

It’s completely possible to repurpose or reuse lithium-ion car batteries. Even after they’re no longer fit to run an electric car, most lithium-ion batteries are still functional and can hold up to 80% of their charge.

If you’re having a hard time finding a local recycling plant that will accept your lithium-ion battery, consider donating it. Some electronics retailers will accept donations of lithium-ion batteries, or put you in touch with a service that will be able to recycle your battery.

Common Questions for Electric Car Owners

If you want to get the most out of your electric car, you may have some questions about the best practices to follow. Below, we’ve answered some common questions electric car owners might have about lithium-ion batteries and electric cars in general.

Can You Overcharge Electric Car Batteries?

Nope — it’s perfectly safe to leave your electric car plugged in. Your battery will slowly discharge when it’s not in use, so if you plan on being away from your car for an extended period, it can be a good idea to leave it plugged in.

Fully charging your battery can, however, slightly reduce its effective lifespan. If your electric car has the option, consider setting your battery’s maximum charge to a value between 50% and 80%. Doing this will prevent the battery from fully charging, and should save a bit of its lifespan.

Are Electric Car Batteries Really Eco-Friendly?

On the whole, lithium batteries are remarkably environmentally friendly, and the same goes for electric cars in general.

There are some caveats to this. The lithium and other valuable components in electric car batteries are non-renewable, and in some cases, these rare components come from unethical sources. In response to this, some companies like Tesla have committed to only sourcing their battery components from North America, where worker safety standards are generally better.

You will also need to recycle or reuse lithium-ion batteries in some capacity. Right now, only a fraction of lithium-ion batteries get recycled, compared to nearly 100% of conventional car batteries. Unrecycled lithium-ion batteries are, fortunately, mostly harmless to the environment.

And if the electricity powering your electric car is non-renewable, the reduction in your carbon footprint may not be as high as it could be.

But cutting out fossil fuels in any capacity will make a car eco-friendly compared to a conventional car. Even factoring in the environmental cost of materials, electric vehicles are significantly more environmentally friendly than standard ones.

How Long Will My Electric Car Battery Last?

The average lithium-ion battery will last around 10 years. After that, you will need to recycle it or use it for something other than powering a car.

Recent reports show that on average, batteries in Tesla vehicles still retain about 90% of their original chargin capacity after 200,000 miles (320,000 kilometres).

Does an Electric Car Battery Require Special Care?

Not particularly, though there are some practices you can follow to increase the lifespan of your battery. First, and most importantly, you should never charge your lithium-ion battery below freezing — if you do, you risk severely damaging the battery and reducing both its capacity and lifespan. High temperatures can help your battery charge faster, but can also shorten your battery’s life.

You should avoid fully charging or discharging the battery, but doing so won’t damage it. However, a full discharge on your battery may be a bad idea if you are planning on getting home.

Recycling An Electric Car Battery

It’s entirely possible to recycle lithium-ion batteries, and doing so is crucial in making them the most environmentally friendly they can be. You may have some trouble finding a local recycling center, but trashing lithium-ion batteries isn’t a good idea. If possible, never throw out a lithium-ion battery.

If you’re new to owning an electric car or considering a purchase, you won’t have to worry about recycling your car battery right now. You’ll have nearly 10 years of driving before you will need to replace your car battery.

About the Author: Dylan Bartlett

Dylan Bartlett is a blogger with an interest in tech, green living and similar topics. You can read more on his site, Just a Regular Guide, or follow his Twitter @theregularguide for frequent updates!

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