Better to repair and recycle than to throw away

Electric vehicles have a positive impact on the environment, and their production and operation is moving towards a closed loop economy. Battery technology has advanced significantly in recent years and battery components are almost entirely recyclable. 

- The need to quickly replace the battery in an electric car, given the large amount of money that must be spent to purchase the vehicle, is an argument often raised by skeptics who say that electromobility is not at all environmentally friendly. One of our goals is to show that they are wrong – says Agata Śmieja, president of the Clean Air Foundation

Together with the Polish Alternative Fuels Association, the organization she heads wants to educate Polish consumers on the benefits of broadly defined electromobility under the "Environmental Education" programme by the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management. What matters for our better future is not only whether we shift to zero-emission vehicles, but also how we use them. Just as important as the actions of manufacturers are the behaviours of consumers who, for their own and the environment's benefit, can extend the life of vehicles.

The degradation rate of a traction battery is slow provided that its use is correct: electric cars with mileage over 300 or 400 thousand km may still have well working batteries. It is also not always necessary to replace the entire battery, usually it is enough to replace the degraded cells. Most electric car manufacturers sell batteries with relatively long warranties, usually 8 years and 160,000 miles. After such a time, the batteries need not yet be discarded. However, their estimated efficiency decreases, e.g. according to the declaration of one of the manufacturers to about 80 percent of the capacity of a new battery.

Opponents of EVs often claim that when a used battery ends up in electronic waste disposal, the substances it contains, such as cobalt and lithium, would poison the environment.  This would be the case if batteries were indeed thrown away, but in fact their components are too valuable to be carelessly wasted (leaving aside the environmental impact). In addition, under current regulations, 100 percent of lithium-ion batteries - both automotive and industrial - must be recycled.

Batteries whose efficiency has fallen below a level that allows for efficient use of the car are disassembled and the resulting cells are used, among other things, to store energy produced from renewable sources, such as in solar farms or in home photovoltaic installations. A proof that recycling is the future of electromobility is delivered by the recently announced joint project between Renault, Solvay and Veolia, which aims to jointly develop a recycling process of traction batteries from electric vehicles to put the raw materials such as cobalt, nickel and lithium into a closed loop. The consortium intends to open a demonstration plant in France soon and then scale up the business.

At Renault, battery repair (i.e. exchanging electric cell modules) is a priority, with removal of batteries from cars and recycling being a second best option. Besides, one of the first European plants where batteries are repaired has been opened in Poland in the town of Zabrze. It will collect batteries from electric cars and plug-in hybrids from Poland and the entire CEE region - Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary.

Transport & Environment, a renowned expert organization based in Brussels, which for nearly three decades has been working towards the elimination of fossil fuels from transport, also argues that extracting lithium, cobalt and nickel from electric vehicle batteries does not have to be environmentally harmful. A prerequisite is the development of a sufficient number of recycling centers in each of the countries where batteries are produced. Batteries should also be designed in such a way that valuable raw materials can be easily recovered from them. The first lithium-ion battery recycling line is being built in our country by Elemental Holding in the Silesian province which competed in the EU competition for key projects of common European interest (IPCEI) and won a €73 million grant for a project worth €100 million. The plant is expected to become operational as early as 2023, with a capacity of several thousand tons in the first phase.

The latest Transport & Environment report also shows that while there is no real chance of "green" oil as a fuel, there are several ways to achieve "green" electric vehicle batteries. According to T&E, an electric car requires as much as 58 percent less energy over its lifetime than an internal combustion car. This is due, on the one hand, to the efficiency of the electric motor and, on the other hand, to the energy intensity of the oil extraction and refining process.  Hence, the better future is definitely electric, of that we should have no doubt. The joint effort of governments, companies and citizens will determine how quickly it becomes our reality.


This material was published thanks to a grant from the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management.
The Clean Air Foundation is solely responsible for its content