The European Battery Recycling association (EBRA), based in Belgium, is a trade association that represents the voice of European recyclers and its members include the major companies such as Umicore, Veolia or Saft.
Dr. Alain VASSART(Pictured), Secretary General of the association, is a member of the Steering Committee of the International Battery Recycling Conference (ICBR) by ICM as well as a co-chair of the working group on recycling within the EC ETIP* (Batteries Europe) and an important figure in the European battery recycling industry.
He kindly accepted an interview with MIRUPLUS and we asked him to speak about the current situation of lithium-ion battery recycling in Europe and the impact of the up-coming Battery Regulation on the recycling industry. EBRA recently submitted feedback to the European Commission, representing the voice of the industry regarding the proposal of the new Battery Regulation.
Q: What is the current situation of battery recycling (lithium-ion batteries) in Europe?
A: As the Battery Directive is currently in the process of revision the situation may change later. I talk about what the current state is. Regarding portable batteries, in every country in Europe you have at least one or more than one collection systems. They collect all kinds of portable batteries including rechargeable or non-rechargeable ones. We basically collect everything as consumers are not obliged to sort them. These batteries are collected by the collection schemes and sent to companies who sort them out by battery chemistries. Once sorting is done, they are sent to recyclers who are specialized in each chemistry.
There are companies speciated in sorting or doing both sorting and recycling.
The EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) scheme is not so much involved in the industrial or automotive batteries. Let’s take an example of an electric car of Toyota. The company has a contract with a recycler. After they call back an EV battery from an end user for recycling, they ship it to the recycler. They have a direct link with a recycler, and they don’t use the service of the EPR scheme.
The way that works is, a car dismantler removes a battery from an ELV and then, he sends it for recycling. If it’s a battery from Toyota, it is Toyota who pays the cost.
However, recently we have small industrial batteries integrated into electric bikes or scooters. They are more and more collected by the EPR scheme. There, the EPR scheme still has a role.
There are differences between portable and industrial batteries in their recycling systems. In portable batteries, you have a cell or a pack with a few cells inside from your computers or cordless devices. They can be recycled directly. For large sized ones like EV batteries, they are too big to be recycled directly. They need to be dismantled into pieces before recycling. In a battery box you have multiple cells, cables, plastics, an electric device such as a battery management system, cooling systems, external casing and so on. These components are sorted. Cells are treated by the lithium-ion battery recyclers and other parts such as cables, aluminum or plastics are sent to recyclers specialized in each material.
As for dismantling, existing dismantlers or startups are in charge. The dismantling of batteries is not necessarily done at a recycling site. For example, Umicore that engages in recycling at an industrial scale, dismantles batteries in its German site and recycles them in its Belgian facility. As a recent tendency, you find some dismantlers who enter the battery-testing business for their second-life use. You also find some startups specialized in remanufacturing EV batteries.
Q: How does the Extended Producer Responsibility (the EPR scheme) set out in the current Battery Directive apply to producers outside the EU?
A: Let’s take an example of Panasonic Japan. This company is producing portable / consumer batteries in Japan and selling them in the European market. In this case, the importer of these batteries is responsible for the EPR scheme. This importer is obliged to become a member of a PRO (Producer Responsibility Organization) established under the EPR scheme stipulated in the EU Battery Directive and consign battery collection and recycling to this organization.
Q: “Free-riders” are often quoted as a problem. Are they normally overseas producers?
A: There are various cases, but I tell you examples of the current situation in Europe. Say you purchase a battery online from somewhere outside the EU and have it sent to Belgium. If the seller of this battery does not have a registered office in Belgium, you will receive it by mail. In this case, it is not sure if this seller has paid for the EPR obligation.
Also, if you import an electric device with a battery integrated inside, it could be a case of the free rider. As the battery regulation is in the process of revision at this moment, this will be changed. Under the new regulation, this kind of import will be subject to the EPR scheme and the custom agencies will be in charge of its control.
Under the current Directive, so far it was not clear where the EPR obligation is applied when you import a good from a country into another within the EU area. The new regulation states clearly that it is the place where a good is imported.
Q: Is the recycling cost of lithium-ion batteries currently covered entirely through the EPR scheme?
A: In most cases, the total cost for managing the end-of-life batteries is higher than the revenues generated by the sales of recycled materials out of those batteries. According to the European laws, companies placing batteries on the market have to pay the difference.
The EPR scheme is a system that pays the difference. In the portable battery example, the PROs will ask recyclers to bid for contracts of one to several years. The same is true for industrial batteries. The market is very competitive.
Q: Could you tell us about the current situation of lithium-ion battery recycling in Europe?
A: Currently, most EVs are still on the road. Batteries that recyclers receive now are mostly damaged ones from car accidents or faulty ones. We don’t have problems with the recycling capacity of lithium-ion batteries as of now in Europe. Both portable and industrial batteries collected are recycled. In the near future, when end-of-life batteries that need to be recycled drastically increase (following the drastic increase of end-of-life EVs), we will need investments to increase the recycling capacity.
As for lithium-ion batteries, under the current Battery Directive, the recycling target is set at 50% (of the weight of collected batteries). There is (not yet) any imposition on the type of material to be recycled. Valuable materials such as cobalt or nickel are recycled anyway. For lithium, its recycling is not profitable as the cost is high while recycling itself is not an issue.
However, the new Regulation may change the situation soon. The upcoming legislation will set up new obligations for recycling materials. First, the overall recycling rate will be increased from 50% to 60% and then to 70%. In addition, material recovery targets are becoming mandatory for Co, Ni, Cu and Li. Therefore, it will be mandatory to recycle lithium.
As the current recycling technologies are not necessarily adapted for processing lithium, some modifications will be needed for recycling lithium. In addition, the minimum use of recycled content will be set out as well. Recyclers will be obliged to adapt their recycling methods.
The main challenges of recyclers are to significantly increase their recycling capacity in order to meet recycling demands that will increase in the future and adapt their recycling technologies to comply with legislative requirements. While existing recyclers are attempting to increase their capacity, many newcomers are entering into the market.
Overall, many of the newcomers in the recycling of lithium-ion batteries have not reached an industrial scale yet. Most of those recyclers are operating at pilot scale or still in the process of development.
As recycling lithium is not profitable, its partial cost is covered by the EPR scheme or by car makers. For the future, it would be ideal to cover all the cost by profits from recycling. However, this is an open question. There are various complicated elements. When waste batteries increase, recycling costs will go down. On the other hand, recyclers need to invest in their recycling facilities. Therefore, it is not sure whether the value generated by the recovered materials from batteries will cover the whole cost of managing the end-of-life of those batteries.
Q: What would the significant impact on the recycling industry be when the new Battery Regulation comes into force?
A: First, there will be new requirements on recycling targets. As I mentioned earlier, the overall recycling rate will increase eventually to 70%. There will be changes in material recovery and recycled material targets as well. Secondly, it will be a safety issue. Handling lithium-ion batteries can pose a safety risk. For this reason, diversified safety measurements will be necessary which involve cost. When the amount of waste batteries increases, safety risk may also increase. This applies to the entire value chain of battery recycling.
Coming back to the recycling rate, we need a level playing field when new targets are set up. Everyone has to follow the regulation. In fact, we must avoid that some recyclers have a wrong interpretation of the recycling targets and this situation must be improved. For us, this is a question of life or death. The EU needs to strengthen the monitoring system.
The new Regulation will also bring a big impact to battery makers outside the EU. We have a system called “CE marking” in the EU and battery makers will have to comply with this requirement. If they don’t meet the conditions of this approval system, they are not allowed to sell their products in the European market. For instance, a safety requirement. There will be some non-EU battery makers who may face a difficulty to sell their products unless they adapt the new requirement. Also, as carbon footprint reporting will be mandatory, battery producers have to be ready to comply. Likewise, the new Regulation can have a significant impact on both producers and recyclers.
On the other hand, there is a positive side for recyclers. The new Regulation will set out a requirement to disclose battery chemistries information. So far, for recyclers, batteries were “black boxes”. You don’t know what is inside until you open them. But in the future, recycling will be much easier when you can obtain the detailed information on battery contents in advance.
* The European Technology & Innovation Platform (ETIP) on batteries (Batteries Europe)
The European Battery Recycling Association
Vienna-based freelance writer & researcher
Field of interest: EU legislations, environmental issues, political theories, military affairs