A circular economy must be ensured in the recycling ecosystem for lithium-ion batteries. Through regulations, incentives or awareness-raising campaigns, the establishment of a circular economy in the context of lithium-ion battery recycling will help to use raw materials efficiently and reduce the burden on the environment
The tech-savvy modern consumer regularly switches to the latest gadgets and solutions. While this trend is resonating well with many global manufacturers, it is also leaving behind a large pile of e-waste. According to the Global E-Waste Monitor Report, nearly 53.6 million tonnes (MT) of e-waste was generated in 2019. This number is expected to increase to 74.7 million tons by 2030.
E-waste is a global problem driven by technological advances in various industries around the world. There needs to be a proper plan for managing the e-waste that comes from different parts of the country’s society. With India set to push for EV adoption on a large scale in the future, the e-waste volume of EVs is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years.
Nearly 30 percent of private vehicles and 70 percent of commercial vehicles are expected to be converted to electric vehicles in the country by 2030. The proportion of lithium-ion battery recycling is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years.
Challenges in recycling e-waste and lithium-ion batteries
Besides electric vehicles, Li-ion batteries are used in various consumer goods, electronics, energy storage devices, and telecommunications sectors. While EV battery e-waste is either recalled by manufacturers or originates from production waste, the other segments mainly attract end-of-life Li-ion batteries into the recycling ecosystem.
Here are some of the challenges to be overcome:
India is the third largest producer of e-waste in the world after China and the USA. While e-waste is not harmful when properly collected, stored and recycled, only 10 percent of e-waste generated in India is properly collected and recycled. Results-based regulation is needed to better implement lithium-ion battery recycling and e-waste recycling in general.
There is a need to use world-class technology for maximum extraction of valuable metals from Li-ion batteries. Unlike e-waste, where the informal recyclers can recover metals such as gold and silver, albeit with an unscientific approach, Li-ion battery recycling cannot. This is mainly because the process knowledge for Li-ion battery recycling has not been passed down from one generation to the next, unlike e-waste recycling.
Tracking e-waste is critical to ensure the policy framework can deliver the expected results. There are challenges in tracking e-waste from cradle to grave and from cradle to cradle. It needs to be resolved to ensure natural circularity in the industry. An effective e-waste tracking mechanism can help review the Li-ion e-waste disposal system and develop sustainable links among stakeholders. It will also improve mainstream acceptance of the e-waste ecosystem. The government introduced the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The manufacturer must ensure that the end-of-life products are collected and recycled.
Investments in research and development would ensure that more lithium-ion e-waste is recycled in India than is exported. However, the most prominent players in the e-waste industry are traders who do not invest in R&D or technological advances. As a result, most e-waste is exported from India with no economic or social benefit to the country.
The solution to the increasing challenge of e-waste
The challenges that arise from technological advances can be solved by the technology itself. With all the challenges of the industry, multiple solutions can be implemented for better efficiency and results. For example, a software system can be deployed to track materials from cradle to cradle in the Li-ion battery ecosystem and other materials that generate e-waste. It would help create a circular economy and enough safeguards to ensure regulations are followed and implemented correctly.
Recyclers operating in the country can connect to a central system for better tracking and efficiency. This can evolve into a system where more efficient recyclers can receive production-related incentives based on their output. It will help track each unit’s progress and contribution of inefficient recycling.
From a manufacturing standpoint, around $100 billion has been invested in the Li-ion battery ecosystem worldwide; Regulations must ensure that every recycler has a minimum investment in research and development, as well as zero emissions and environmental safety. The assets in R&D will lead to better industry practices. At the same time, it lays a solid foundation for the country’s long-term e-waste plans.
Another major intervention can be to prevent the export of electronic waste. By exporting most of the e-waste, the country cannot create the image of a proactive environmental saver in the global community. In the long term, it will also create a win-win situation for the country and the industry. The government can take the lead here to ensure that e-waste recycling is established as a practice, rather than opting for a short-term solution of e-waste exports.
A circular economy must be ensured in the recycling ecosystem for lithium-ion batteries. Through regulations, incentives or awareness-raising campaigns, the establishment of a circular economy in the context of lithium-ion battery recycling will help to use raw materials efficiently and reduce the burden on the environment.
Role of the PLI system
The Government of India’s Production Linked Incentive Scheme (PLI) is instrumental in boosting the manufacturing landscape in the electric vehicle industry. It is expected that an increasing number of manufacturers will take advantage of the incentives available under the program and increase their involvement in EV manufacturing.
However, it does not cover materials essential to ensure the sustainability of electric vehicles and renewable energy in India. By covering materials, the regulations would also make way for Li-ion battery recycling, which is essential for sustainable EV growth in the country.
There is no doubt that exciting times are ahead for some industries, including electric vehicles, that are pushing the frontiers of technological advancement. However, enough attention must be paid to ensuring that e-waste recycling is handled correctly. First, more support for scientific recycling and cradle-to-cradle tracking of materials is needed to ensure circularity.
The roadmap for the future can be divided into short-term and long-term measures. For example, quick actions such as granting recycling licenses to organizations with the right technology and equipment, de-listing dismantling contractors, and letting CPCBs take the lead in this exercise rather than relying on SPCBs would reduce the bureaucratic burden and reduce the increase efficiency.
At the same time, long-term benefits such as extending the benefits of the PLI system to recyclers producing end metals and materials instead of OEMs using recycled materials can be leveraged. These solutions can form the basis for efficiently dealing with the increasing amount of e-waste.
(The above article is credited to Nitin Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Attero Recycling.)