What’s the destiny of EV batteries when they retire in the next 10 years?
1 September 2021 By Khoa Tran and Chermaine Lee
Millions of electric car batteries are expected to retire in the next decade. So how are they dealt with after they come to the end of their lifetime? Meanwhile, in Indonesia, stranded dugongs, a vulnerable marine relative of the manatee, are reportedly being cut up for traditional medicine.
Last week, we talked about how the Taliban, who are now trying to govern Afghanistan, are sitting on large deposits of rare earth elements like lithium, cobalt and copper. Such elements are essential to manufacturing and developing green technologies, specifically electric vehicle (EV) batteries.
And as “emissions-free” as EVs can get, batteries still have an expiry date. There comes a time, when after being recharged so many times, the battery needs to be disposed of. With current technology, this usually happens between three to five years, depending on the car model. So how exactly EVs claim to be sustainable in the long run given this battery constraint?
Well, how about the fact that battery technology is getting better and better? Isn’t that the reason why many are now making the switch to EVs, contributing to their rise in popularity in recent years? While it’s true that battery technology keeps improving and batteries are getting more efficient both in terms of mileage (before having to recharge) and lifespan (before being replaced altogether) there needs to be another aspect of the industry that needs to change in order to reduce waste.
A potential solution could be to create a more efficient life cycle for batteries by recycling them. Tesla’s former Chief Technology Officer J.B. Straubel, who worked for the American EV manufacturer for 15 years before starting a battery recycling company. According to Straubel, the EV industry is at risk of being unsustainable without proper battery manufacturing and disposal. His startup is looking for ways to recycle metals from any batteries — so not just from EVs but also from old phones and laptops — into new functioning batteries. Generally, this is known as “urban mining.”
Urban mining could be an important step towards achieving a so-called circular economy and manufacturing more sustainable technologies without having to mine anything from the Earth. As for how this might benefit the economy, a recent report from Research Dive suggests the global EV battery recycling market is expected to generate over 13 million USD by 2028; that’s a 1.2 million increase from 2020. 6.7 million of which is expected to come from the Asia-Pacific region due to rising productions and demands for EVs in countries like India, Japan, Australia and China.
All this sounds great on paper, but in reality, there are lots of challenges with recycling batteries. First off, it’s a really hard process. Straubel points to current challenges in scaling his company’s recycling process fast enough to meet future demands for new batteries. In China, Zhang Xiaorong, director of Cutting-Edge Technology Research Institute, also agrees that the process requiring disassembling by hand imposes a significant cost to recycling batteries. If handled improperly, he comments, it could cause “great pollution” as a “20-gram cell phone battery can pollute 1 square kilometer of land for about 50 years.”
As industry standards have yet to be fully formed, Zhang Xiang, an auto-industry analyst commenting for the Global Times, further notes that to “promote the development of [battery recycling], the [Chinese] government [would need] to provide subsidies and policies to support its sustainability.” After all, come 2022, research institutions estimate about 420,000 tons of power batteries in China will need to be recycled.
This sure looks like quite the challenge, but it does sound like a worthwhile pursuit. If we zoom out a little, batteries are used not only in EVs, but also other green technology to store energy; in solar or wind power for example. Imagine all the devices we use personally and enjoy publicly that use electricity, the vast majority of them rely on some sort of battery that is bound to expire and will need to be accounted for.
Indonesia is struggling to regulate conservation efforts to protect dugongs
While much of traditional Chinese medicine involves roots and herbs, some also use animal parts. Some practitioners for instance believe that dugongs — a large grey and brown marine animal, relative of the manatee — are effective aphrodisiacs, so hunting them as food and medicine has led to the near extinction of the species. A 2019 study shows that it could be endangered or even critically endangered in some parts of the world. Since they feed exclusively on seagrass, the silting of seagrass beds is threatening their livelihood. In Indonesia, the animal is a protected species under the law, so even after a dugong dies, it is still illegal to possess its body parts.
Conservation officials in Indonesia have been struggling to deal with stranded dugongs. Earlier this month, two dugongs got stranded on Kelang Island in the eastern province of Maluka. One returned to the ocean luckily, but the other one was not so fortunate. Although locals tried to help push it back into the water, it died. The residents there were so used to using the animal parts as drugs that they cut up the deceased dugong and shared the parts among themselves for medicinal use.
Officials said cutting a dugong and using its body parts is not just illegal, but its consumption could actually pose a health risk to communities as these dugongs might be contaminated by bacteria. While we don’t know why dugongs got stranded, consuming them can indeed be risky both for the ecosystem and our health.
Experts have come up with different theories — some said the dugongs might have eaten marine debris they can’t digest, while others have suggested offshore underwater activities using sonars could have disrupted sea mammals’ echolocation. All in all, it seems human activities of all sorts are highly likely the cause of their sudden deaths.
While scientists are still trying to understand this, Indonesia has been offering training to locals on how to carry out immediate rescue operations for stranded marine animals — such as first-aid — but the government campaign has been hampered by a lack of funding and talent to provide such training to more locations where strandings are common.
Indonesian medical plants at risk
Indonesia’s conservation struggles to protect animals also extends to protecting plants. A new story revealed that over half of the country’s medicinal plant species won’t be able to grow in most of their current range by 2050 due to climate change.
A group of experts wrote in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation that 26 out of 43 medicinal plant species are expected to lose up to 80% of their distribution area, with species on the islands of New Guinea, Java and Sulawesi experiencing the largest reduction due to sea level rise.
To understand how important they are, we have to know that Indonesians don’t just use them for personal health, but they are traded by local and indigenous communities — in 2013, the economic value of Indonesia’s medicinal plants stood at US$14.6 billion. In 2050, such trade globally is estimated at US$5 trillion. Indonesia owns a wellspring of precious medicinal plants — at least 80% of those in Southeast Asia can be found in the country.
These species are facing the threat of losing their habitats to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation in the region has been so serious that Malaysia nearly eradicated a potential anti-HIV drug before it was discovered. Experts are calling for internal and external conservation of Indonesian medicinal plant species.
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Sustainable Asia’s podcast “GreenBites’’ is hosted by Chermaine Lee, Khoa Tran, Avery Choi and Stella Chen. Producer: Bonnie Au and Executive Producer: Marcy Trent Long Associate Producer: Rachel Li