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Watt Comes Around Goes Around: Will California Do the Right Thing on EV Batteries?

   

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Over the past year, I have written a lot about electric vehicle (EV) battery recycling, answering common questions, reviewing the European Union’s gold standard battery recycling policy, and establishing principles for strong EV recycling policy generally. 

While I have been frantically typing away for your reading pleasure, I have also been working in Sacramento to push for the strongest possible EV battery end-of-life policy in California. This advocacy has been laser focused on Senate Bill (SB) 615 (Allen), which faces a vote in the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials on June 25, 2024. 

UCS will be at the June hearing asking legislators to move the bill forward while continuing to advocate for it to be strengthened in some important ways. If it passes this committee, SB 615 will then move to a second committee, the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, and then to the entire Assembly and Senate for votes in August. Amendments can happen all along the way but become more and more difficult the longer we wait. 

Negotiations on this bill will likely continue until the bitter end. It is essential this policy is as strong as possible by including the following:  

Strong Extended Producer Responsibility
A recycling definition that includes minimum recovery rates, environmental reporting of process outputs, and community engagement  
Producer reporting of where the batteries are going for recycling and the recovery rates of that facility 

Electric vehicles are the future. They reduce greenhouse gas emissions and don’t release toxic tailpipe pollution associated with a host of negative health impacts

But when EVs retire, what happens to the batteries? I’m asked that question a lot, and for good reason. Well, for now, anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the batteries are being reused, repurposed, or recycled. No reporting exists, but EV battery recycling companies are popping up around the US. Considering retirement is just a trickle today, those recycling companies beginning their pursuit of profit need to get their hands on what is out there.  

But, over the next decade, we will see a snowball of retirements, especially in California, increasing in size as our transition to zero-emission vehicles continues. This snowball will include batteries that aren’t profitable to recycle, and without policy intervention, they will slip through the cracks—which will likely include the hazardous waste landfill or an unregulated dismantler somewhere.  

Let’s not forget that retired batteries are an excellent source of minerals for the next generation of manufactured vehicles – even the ones that may not be economical to recycle because of the high cost of transporting damaged batteries from far-flung regional areas. Recycled materials have a lower environmental and social impact than the newly mined alternatives and are a domestic source of the material. 

Like you, California legislators have been asking questions about what happens when an EV retires and have recognized the need to start planning for the EV future. Since an Advisory Group started in 2019, California legislators and stakeholders have been discussing the right policy to ensure EV battery recycling.  

SB 615 (Allen) is the product of those discussions and a policy that we hope will lead to environmentally and socially responsible recycling of EV batteries retired in the state. While the bill includes some essential components of strong battery end-of-life policy, it is still a work in progress. As we approach the conclusion of the California legislative session at the end of August, we still have some work to do to make this policy as strong as possible.  

SB 615 is an extended producer responsibility (EPR) policy that requires the automotive manufacturer to ensure that the battery is recycled. The manufacturer is in the unique position of designing, selling, and tracking these EVs. Therefore, they have control over how easy and cost-effective it is to disassemble and recycle the batteries. For example, if a battery is extremely difficult to take apart, it will become a time-intensive and costly hurdle for recyclers. If the automakers were responsible for ensuring these batteries are recycled and, therefore, for covering the cost of recycling, they would design them for easier disassembly.  

They also represent a small number of entities that can be held accountable if the batteries are sent to the landfill instead.  While the auto manufacturer is responsible for ensuring the battery is recycled, they can contract with companies that have expertise in battery collection and the recycling process.  

This type of policy isn’t a new concept to auto manufacturers. In 2023, the European Union passed an extended producer responsibility covering all EV batteries, a market that automotive companies selling into the US also participate in. 

While SB 615’s version of an EPR is not as straightforward as the EU’s policy, it tries to strike a balance between holding automakers accountable for battery recycling, while also considering complexities associated with the existing automobile dismantling industry in California. This is a balance we can live with as long as an entity with the means to collect, transport and recycle batteries is responsible for any batteries that may slip through the cracks. A defined responsible entity means centralized responsibility for ensuring as few batteries end up in unsafe or precarious locations as possible.  

The type of recycling process used matters. Recycling should: 

Recover high rates of the key minerals specifically lithium, nickel, and cobalt. The minerals recovered, the less newly mined minerals needed to produce future EVs, therefore reducing environmental and social impacts from mining. 
Have low environmental impacts. The best available technology should be used so that local communities are not harmed by the mineral recovery.  

SB 615 would disqualify the destructive practice of incineration from being considered “recycling.” However, it does not include recovery rate requirements nor allow for an approval process to ensure batteries will only be sent to the least impactful, most efficient recyclers.     

Ideally, a state agency would be responsible for approving the recyclers based on their ability to meet minimum mineral recovery rates and report their environmental outputs to the agency. The approved recycler definition should be set and updated by the agency on a regular basis through a public workshop process. The workshop should include populations, especially any underserved communities, located near existing facilities.  

The intent of these requirements is to increase transparency of the recycling impact and to update the recycling requirements based on concerns stemming from the reported emissions and the community’s first-hand experience.  

The brilliance of this approach is that it considers the nascency of the recycling industry. It allows for an adaptable recycling definitions as technology develops and information becomes available, and as technologies currently at lab-scale are developed into industrial processes 

Currently, we know that incineration-based technologies are not the right choice—they don’t recover lithium and require more energy for heating, as well as result in off-gassing. Luckily, there are better recycling options available. Several new patented technologies include pre-processes of mechanical crushing and/or heating, followed by liquid-based mineral recovery (hydrometallurgical recycling).  

Additionally, start-ups and the Argonne National Lab are working on new processes altogether that recover the full positive electrode. These are expected to result in lower environmental impacts and higher recovery of key minerals. Due to this innovation, the bill leaves the technology that can be used open-ended and only bans incineration.  

The strongest version of this policy would set recovery rates for critical minerals, require the use of best available and cleanest technologies, and allow for the state to reevaluate and strengthen its recycling definitions over time. At the very least, there needs to be robust reporting requirements so the legislature can see where batteries were recycled and pass new legislation in the future to update these definitions if necessary.  

SB 615 will be heard in California’s Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials on June 25th. UCS will continue its tireless efforts to use its expertise to pass the strongest possible version of this bill. 

Thank you to UCS Policy Manager, Daniel Barad, for his significant contribution to this blog.

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