Families on the front lines of mining, drilling, and fracking need your help. Support them now!

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

This piece was co-authored by Alexia Melendez Martineau, Senior Policy Manager at Plug In America

Currently, transportation is the sector with the single highest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the US, making it one of the easiest and most important to address in the present and immediate future. Electric vehicles (EVs), powered by rechargeable batteries, are an essential tool to reduce GHG emissions. For EVs to be an ethical and sustainable solution to the climate crisis, they must be produced as efficiently and ethically as possible, and we must create pathways for end-of-life batteries to ensure sustainable electrification. To achieve necessary emissions reductions and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the transition to EVs must be complemented by other strategies that reduce demand for battery materials and expand mobility options. 

Below, we outline what EV batteries are made of, sourcing for EV battery materials, and how a circular economy and battery recycling can mitigate the harms of battery production. 

What are EV batteries made of, and where do these materials come from? 

Like most batteries, EV batteries are composed mainly of energy transition minerals (ETMs), sometimes called “critical minerals.” Currently, most EV batteries are lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) and contain various amounts of minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite. Many of the materials used for EV batteries can be reused and recycled, unlike gasoline vehicles which rely on the continuous extraction and burning of fossil fuels. EV batteries are charged using electricity, ideally produced from renewable sources like solar or wind power.

To source ETMs, the EV battery supply chain relies on archaic mining practices that have a history of negatively impacting local communities and the environment. Many mines lack safe labor standards, contaminate local water sources, and cause negative public health outcomes. Mineral mining produces significant emissions and other kinds of pollution associated with the extraction process. According to the UN Environment Program, minerals mining and processing are responsible for 10% of all GHG emissions. 

The majority of minerals used in EV batteries today are sourced from and processed within just a few countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Indonesia, the Philippines, and New Caledonia. The whole supply chain is affected if any of these countries experience disruptions (e.g. extreme weather or geopolitics).

A circular battery economy can decrease dependence on mined materials, reduce emissions, and strengthen global supply chains. 

Improving EVs through a circular economy

A circular battery economy is where end-of-life EV batteries are reused, repurposed, or recycled to create new batteries, instead of continually relying on materials obtained through mining. 

In a circular economy, products, materials, and resources stay in use for as long as possible: products are designed for disassembly, remanufacturing, reuse, and recycling. Our current linear economy relies on constant material extraction, consumption, and disposal, which strains communities and resources. Gas cars require continuous oil exploration, drilling, extraction, refining, and burning. In contrast, EV batteries last a long time and are made of materials that can be used repeatedly. EVs offer a tremendous opportunity compared to traditional combustion engine vehicles to implement a circular economy that has long-term viability. Keeping materials and products in use for as long as possible minimizes mining impacts, unnecessary waste, and energy consumption. 

Traditional mining and processing practices for battery materials require enormous amounts of energy and produce significant GHG emissions. While an EV’s lifecycle emissions are lower than a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle, the initial emissions to manufacture an EV are higher. Yet because they produce no tailpipe emissions and have more efficient electric motors, EVs ultimately produce fewer emissions over their lifecycle. Reducing our need for mined materials and increasing battery recycling, reuse, and repurposing can reduce the initial emissions associated with EV production. A new Stanford University study shows that recycling can produce 80% fewer emissions than extraction. 

Battery recycling basics and benefits 

A typical EV battery currently has a lifespan of 10-20 years. When batteries can no longer power the drivetrain of an EV, they still have 70-80% of their capacity, meaning they can be repurposed at least once for energy storage applications or other uses. Batteries can be collected for recycling after being used as much as technologically possible in their original form. 

Battery recycling involves dismantling and breaking down a battery to get to the raw materials, and then using different processes to recover those raw materials for use in another application. The minerals in an EV battery can be recycled over and over again. According to Redwood Materials CEO J.B. Straubel, the metals in batteries don’t change or degrade, so the materials from old batteries can be made into new batteries without any tradeoffs in performance or battery life. Research shows that recycling can support a significant portion of the minerals necessary for the growing EV market. A study by the American Chemical Society shares, “Under idealized conditions, retired batteries could supply 60% of cobalt, 53% of lithium, 57% of manganese, and 53% of nickel globally in 2040.” Additionally, using recycled materials in new batteries can avoid expending energy on obtaining and processing new minerals, thus reducing the lifecycle emissions associated with battery production by 7–17%. 

Battery recycling provides a variety of additional benefits, including alleviating the public health and environmental concerns that can result from traditional disposal. The ability to extract and reuse these materials from end-of-life EV batteries will eventually reduce costs and lower our need for new minerals. Building out domestic recycling can also mitigate supply and price volatility across global markets and create thousands of new jobs. 

Currently, recycling infrastructure is largely nascent and needs rapid investment and scaling. Many policies can increase recycling in the short and long term. Like all circular economy policies, recycling must be complemented by demand reduction, extended producer responsibility, and other strategies. 

Developing a holistic transportation system for long-term success

Research shows that simply electrifying the current vehicle fleet will not be enough to keep global warming below 1.5° Celsius. To combat the climate crisis and optimize the efficiency of the minerals we extract, we must electrify vehicles while developing a just and accessible transportation system where more people can meet their everyday needs without a car. 

We can significantly change future demand projections for primary mineral extraction by expanding mobility options, with some studies showing lithium demand can be reduced by up to 66%. Options such as public transportation, car-sharing, and micro-mobility offer less resource-intensive transportation solutions for many lifestyles. Simultaneously, decreasing the size of EV batteries through technological innovation, such as increased vehicle efficiency and improving the energy density of batteries, while shifting to smaller vehicles will reduce the volume of minerals necessary to support the EV transition. 

We were extracting minerals from the earth for numerous everyday applications, like producing our phones and laptops and to power our current fossil-fueled transportation sector, long before the rise of EVs. The transition to electrified transportation offers a timely catalyst to rethink our antiquated mining laws and establish a circular economy for long-term success and well-being. 

Looking ahead

We can take advantage of this transition to electrified mobility as an opportunity to build an economy that reduces harm and is sustainable for communities for centuries to come. This requires incentivizing circularity, including reuse, design, and recycling. 

This blog is the first in a series about EV batteries and the opportunity to strengthen EV supply chains and long-term EV industry sustainability through reusing, repurposing, and recycling end-of-life EV batteries. This series covers EV battery basics, the benefits of a circular EV battery economy, challenges and opportunities related to advancing such an economy, and what stakeholders can do to accelerate progress. Each blog will be authored by experts in a series of subjects, including policy, regulation, and battery science. We hope this information and the rest of this series will be useful for advocates interested in EVs, battery recycling and the other components of a circular battery supply chain. 

Additional Resources