Environmental Impact Batteries

Environmental Impact Of Battery Production And Disposal

Batteries are essential for many of our daily-use gadgets, powering our portable devices like phones, toys, handheld power tools, and headphones. On a bigger scale, batteries have a crucial place in the energy and transport sector. 

Many car manufacturers have switched to making electric vehicles with growing environmental concerns regarding fossil fuel use. The burning of fossil fuels to power products like vehicles is already known for contributing to pollution and climate change. 

However, researchers are shining a light on battery manufacturing and its carbon footprint. How much of an impact does the global batteries market have on the environment? In this article, we'll explore the life cycle of batteries by examining battery manufacturing and waste battery disposal.

Battery Usage in Today’s World

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

The use of batteries in the power and automobile industries globally is changing how we use and dispose of batteries. From batteries that power little devices to lithium-ion battery packs within electric vehicles, the industry continues to seek smaller and longer-lasting batteries while volume increases. 

The electric transportation sector has been growing with ongoing conversations about ways to reduce the global carbon footprint. On the one hand, there’s no denying the concerns around the burning of fossil fuels. This has raised the need to switch to newer systems that champion electric cars. 

However, we’re now seeing greater discussions about the true environmental costs of electric cars. Specifically, the world is focusing more on electric car batteries, considering the impact battery manufacturers have on the environment and how disposal methods can be anything but environmentally friendly. 

Many systems have been making changes to reduce burning fossil fuels and shift towards renewable energy sources. With the effect of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet, it has become more important than ever to examine the life cycle of products.

Battery-powered electric vehicles & ubiquitous electronic devices

Battery powered electronic devices
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

On the one hand, we can see leading car manufacturers making a switch to electric vehicles as an alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, 95% of our world’s transport energy comes from petroleum-based fuels6.

Electric vehicles, which run on lithium-ion batteries, play their role in reducing pollution on the roads. As a result, electric car batteries do help us reduce our environmental impact to an extent. Within the global market, there has also been a surge in demand for electric vehicles. As a result, this demand leads to an increase in the production of electric batteries along with a growing amount of spent batteries.  

Apart from zooming in on the electric car, we must also explore the widespread consumption of electronic devices. Many items within the home and outside are powered by one battery pack or the other. 

Growing battery demand translates into growing environmental impact

As a result, researchers note growing worries about the ecological and environmental effects of spent batteries. Studies revealed a compound annual growth rate of up to 8% in 2018. The number is expected to reach between 18 and 30% by 20303.

The need to increase production comes with the growing demand for new products and electronics. This is where concerns about the carbon footprint of batteries and battery-powered devices come into play. Although it's easy to praise batteries produced with energy storage in mind, there’s much more to consider across their lifecycle other than emission reductions when they power our EVs. 

When there’s a lack of regulation around manufacturing methods and waste management, battery production hurts the planet in many ways. From the mining of materials like lithium to the conversion process, improper processing and disposal of batteries lead to contamination of the air, soil, and water. Also, the toxic nature of batteries poses a direct threat to aquatic organisms and human health as well. 

While examining the environmental impact of batteries, we also need to note the demand for specific types. Today, the lithium-ion battery or Li-ion battery is the most common type of rechargeable battery. Manufacturers use lithium-ion batteries in computers, phones, and of course, electric cars. Consequently, this shoots up lithium demand.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

The lithium-ion battery, or li-ion battery, is a common and frequently used battery type in our day-to-day lives. Manufacturers largely use li-ion batteries in consumer electronics and computers. Li-ion batteries are electric batteries or a type of rechargeable battery that we can use over and over again. 

These types of batteries also provide a high energy density. Manufacturers turn to them for their high-power output per kilogram when compared to other electric batteries. A Li-ion battery stores about 150 watt-hours per kg5.

Apart from their role in keeping our electronic devices alive, they are also important to the electric vehicle industry. Many electric car batteries, or EV batteries, rely on this battery type. 

Within these batteries, lithium ions move from anode to cathode. This process releases energy from the battery to the device. It goes through this cycle in reverse during the recharging period. However, the cycle of discharging and charging slowly reduces the battery’s capacity over time.

Naturally, the number of natural resources and battery materials producers need for small devices differs significantly from a car battery. There's a greater need for energy storage in EV batteries. As a result, manufacturers need to incorporate raw materials like nickel, cobalt, and graphite. These require extraction methods that place a toll on the environment in addition to lithium production. 

Apart from li-ion batteries, the world uses a host of other battery types. Some other popular ones include:

Lithium Batteries 

Not to be confused with li-ion batteries, lithium batteries are a type of non-rechargeable battery. The lithium battery possesses primary cell construction and offers high energy densities. These battery types come in AA, AAA, and 9V sizes. Producers use lithium batteries in both small and large electronic devices. They are great for portable devices due to their lightweight nature. 

Lead Acid Batteries

The lead acid battery is an older battery technology that people explored for its durability, efficiency, and low costs. This type of battery works for many battery power applications. 

One of their most popular uses is in conventional automotive vehicles, where the large surge and current capacity make them ideal for starting internal combustion engines. Today, lithium battery production has been replacing the lead acid variants. However, manufacturers continue to use lead-acid batteries in various applications, from automobiles and motorcycles to backup power systems.

Are Batteries Bad for the Environment?

Battery Production and the Environmental Impact of Battery Manufacturing

Today, many of our electronics and electric cars rely on lithium, an alkali metal. It’s almost impossible not to own products that rely on lithium batteries. 

On the one hand, there’s an economic advantage for countries that export this raw material. However, there’s also the environmental challenge lithium extraction and production pose. 

Lithium-ion’s production process presents challenges to people and the planet. During production, it requires large amounts of water and energy. It also creates soil and air pollution problems that affect the climate and safety of our world. 

In terms of direct human impact, there’s the ethical challenge of unsafe conditions within mines. In developing countries where producers extract these raw materials, there are cases of child labor where both children and adults face unsafe conditions. 

With lithium production and consumption growing exponentially, it’s necessary to dive into the impact. Studies reveal a projected growth rate of US$30 billion in 2017 to $100 billion in 2025 within the lithium-ion batteries market4. At the same time, according to a report by the Global Battery Alliance, a public-private partnership led by the World Economic Forum, batteries have the potential to enable 30% of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within the transport and power sectors1.

Environmental Effects Associated with the Production of Li-Ion Batteries

Soquimich Lithium Mine
Pictured: Aerial view of Soquimich Lithium Mine in the Atacama Desert in Chile. A naturally dry area, water is pumped from underground wells into ponds used to extract lithium from salts in the area. Photo Credit: Nuno Luciano via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

Similar to petroleum, we need to mine and extract materials like lithium from the earth to use them. As a result, the process of mining and extracting is the first point of contact when examining the effects of battery manufacturing. Apart from lithium, manufacturers use materials like cobalt and nickel when making batteries to extend their life cycle. 

Manufacturing companies often need to source lithium deposits in faraway countries when seeking to extract lithium. Some of the largest deposits in the world reside in South America, Mexico, and East Asia. 

About one-third of the world’s lithium comes from salt flats in Chile and Argentina. In these regions, miners mine the resource using huge quantities of water. Within the Andes mountains of South America, one of the challenges with extraction is water since the mountains are quite dry, and the extraction process requires water in large quantities. This enables the element to come to the surface in a salty brine. 

You need lithium carbonate to create a battery. Lithium carbonate is a concentrated material that comes from using evaporation pools to refine lithium-containing salts. Workers leave pools of salty brine to evaporate until they can filter the solid salts. This evaporation period can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months. As a water-intensive method, this process uses about 500,000 gallons of water per tonne of lithium.

Apart from its intensive water use, refining lithium also requires using toxic chemicals like hydrochloric acid. Consequently, these chemicals can leach into community water supplies. These procedures affect local farmers, the community at large, and also aquatic bodies. 

In regions like North America and Australia, miners use traditional methods to extract lithium from rocks. However, even this requires chemicals as well. The effects are clear from canals filled with contaminated water to chemicals in the soil. 

With the great demand for lithium, it’s no surprise that manufacturers will want to hasten production. To cut the evaporation period of the brine short, factories can heat the water. However, this throws fossil fuels into the energy mix, thereby defeating the purpose. 

Cobalt Mining

Cobalt constitutes a crucial part of a battery’s electrode. As a result, vehicle and electronics manufacturers also extract this raw material. Besides the adverse environmental effects of lithium extraction and production, cobalt mining is a destructive process. 

It’s first important to know that around 70% of the world's cobalt is in one country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Therefore, the world’s cobalt demand takes a toll on this region. Apart from environmental effects, there are also human consequences to the people within the region. Child and slave labor, unsafe working conditions, and high levels of congenital disabilities due to chemical exposure are rampant. 

Unlike lithium, cobalt and nickel mining occurs underground. This process has various effects, from physically destroying habitats to chemicals polluting surrounding areas. Since cobalt plays an essential role in producing batteries, chemists are researching cleaner alternatives.

Battery Disposal

Battery waste
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Battery disposal is another area of concern. When disposed of improperly, used batteries can cause toxic environmental challenges. Since these batteries contain potentially toxic elements, they can become an environmental disaster. In some cases, improper disposal can cause explosions. 

The Effects of Battery Waste 

Within the home, battery waste comprises solid waste that ends up in landfills. So, when you throw your batteries out, they most likely end up in a landfill. Here, they decay and leak. The battery corrodes, and its chemicals leak into the soil. Apart from this, they can enter surface and groundwater supplies, thereby contaminating them. Furthermore, these battery chemicals reach the oceans and threaten aquatic animals. 

Apart from leaking chemicals, when exposed, lithium within batteries is volatile. Consequently, it can initiate landfill fires, thereby releasing even more harmful gases into the atmosphere. 

From this, it’s easy to see how improper waste management, even on a small scale, can cause large-scale, long-term effects. These chemicals can affect the environment and pose a danger to human safety. Apart from batteries within the home, this also applies to disposing of electric vehicle batteries. 

Disposing of Electric Vehicles Batteries

EV at a battery charging station
Photo by Oxana Melis on Unsplash

Unlike regular cars or batteries, EV batteries are heavier and larger. These batteries also contain several li-ion cells that require dismantling. If dismantled incorrectly, the hazardous materials have the potential to explode. 

Using recycled materials has been praised as a solution. However, the process of recycling a li-ion battery is not as widespread as the conventional lead-acid battery. 

Regardless, global organizations recognize the need to put standards in place. These standards seek to reduce the number of batteries manufacturers and brands dump or throw away. This calls for the need to reuse and recycle materials to support sustainable development. For instance, proposals from the European Union highlight the need for electric vehicle manufacturers to see to the proper management of their products.

Battery Recycling as a Solution

With tons of research and money going into recycling, it’s only normal for recycling to be a suggested solution. Rather than tossing out batteries into the trash, they can pass through the recycling process to serve a new life. 

However, the recycling rate and process largely depend on the battery type. First, let’s explore the lead-acid battery. This battery is recycled globally. Studies also reveal a 99.3% battery recycling rate7.

The best part is that every battery component is recyclable and reusable. That is, parts like lead, plastic, and sulfuric acid can play roles in producing new batteries. In terms of sustainability, this is a win. Recycling reduces the pressure on mining new lead, and it also reduces waste. Furthermore, it reduces the amount of lead in landfills. 

Recycling li-ion is a different practice. Unlike lead-acid variants that recycling companies can easily work with, this one is not as easy. Although recycling lithium-ion batteries is technically possible, it’s a more complicated process. 

Lithium is barely ever recycled due to its complicated life cycle. Throughout their lifespan, these batteries go through irreversible damage. What this means is that it’s impossible to repurpose them simply. As a result, recyclers need to tear the battery apart and extract the lithium. Afterward, they can re-manufacture them. 

During the manufacturing process, producers include a host of additives into the electrolyte liquid in the battery. These additives serve as a way to improve the li-ion battery in one way or another.  

For instance, an additive can make the battery more durable in changing weather conditions. On the other hand, another additive could serve as a way to speed up the manufacturing process. 

Due to the possibilities of various mixtures, it becomes hard to repurpose the metals within the battery. At the same, it makes it an expensive method. 

To attempt recycling, companies must dismantle the components of waste batteries safely and correctly. One of the reasons for this is that the electrolyte mixture can quickly explode if exposed to high temperatures, which can quickly occur with improper handling. With all these factors at play, it's easy to see how and why the lithium battery material recycling rate is relatively low. 

Globally, at the moment, the percentage of these batteries that we recycle is not stable. However, estimates give a value of about just 5%. Further, automotive Li-ion batteries have only been used in vehicles on a large scale for around 5 years2, and as such, a large amount has as yet to reach their end of life, justifying large-scale recycling.

Possible Solutions

In the case of electric cars, there’s no denying that they are a greener solution to petroleum-powered vehicles. However, as we’ve examined, the battery-making process isn’t free of environmental effects. 

In this light, this calls for sector-wide improvements to achieve environmentally friendly battery production as much as possible. There’s a need to make the processes around battery making and disposal much greener and safer. This will not only positively impact the environment but also protect people’s health. Improvements in areas like battery technology can pave the way to making the process more environmentally friendly. Also, switching to renewable energy sources is a significant step. 

Before recycling, another solution would be to use batteries for longer. Experts reveal that in electric cars, there’s still battery capacity at the end of first use in these vehicles. Although manufacturers can't use them to power the cars anymore, they could have second lives. For instance, they could store excess energy generated by solar.

Conclusion

Batteries come in various forms and contain a host of materials. Regardless, these products often go through intensive extraction and manufacturing processes. Consequently, they negatively affect the environment and present health risks. 

From small electronics to vehicles, batteries are everywhere. These products can help reduce carbon emissions in our world so long as improvements present cleaner processes.

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Pin Image Portrait Environmental Impact Of Battery Production And Disposal

1

Global Battery Alliance. (2019 September). A Vision for a Sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030 Unlocking the Full Potential to Power Sustainable Development and Climate Change Mitigation

2

Linda Gaines, The future of automotive lithium-ion battery recycling: Charting a sustainable course, Sustainable Materials and Technologies, Volumes 1–2, 2014, Pages 2-7, ISSN 2214-9937,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.susmat.2014.10.001.

3

Elda M. Melchor-Martínez, Rodrigo Macias-Garbett, Alonso Malacara-Becerra, Hafiz M.N. Iqbal, Juan Eduardo Sosa-Hernández, Roberto Parra-Saldívar, Environmental impact of emerging contaminants from battery waste: A mini review, Case Studies in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Volume 3, 2021, 100104, ISSN 2666-0164, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cscee.2021.100104

4

Nature, Lithium-ion batteries need to be greener and more ethical, Nature 595, 7 (2021), doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01735-z

5

J. Dixon, Energy storage for electric vehicles, 2010 IEEE International Conference on Industrial Technology, 2010, pp. 20-26, doi: 10.1109/ICIT.2010.5472647.

6

Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data, EPA

7

National Recycling Rate (pdf), Battery Council, SmithBucklin Statistics Group, Chicago, Illinois, November 2019

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Photo by Roberto Sorin on Unsplash
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