How can China address its EV battery-recycling challenge?

Battery recycling needs standardising, say experts, who also call for loopholes to be closed and awareness raised among EV owners
<p>Ideally, battery manufacturers, car companies and recycling firms would form their own closed recycling circles (Image: Alamy)</p>

Ideally, battery manufacturers, car companies and recycling firms would form their own closed recycling circles (Image: Alamy)

Five years ago, Liu Gong bought an electric car for just over 100,000 yuan (US$14,600) with the help of government subsidies. Its battery has now weakened to less than 70% of the original capacity. To continue driving, he has been told that he will have to pay around 60,000 yuan (US$8,277) to replace the battery.

“For not too much more, I could just buy a new car,” he says. A dealer told him that the depreciation in the price of old batteries means any buyback from the dealership would mean practically giving the battery away for free. Staff, unable to give any concrete guidance, suggested he deal with it himself.

But how should he go about doing that? Liu Gong, who is among 13.1 million EV owners in China – or 4.1% of total car owners – isn’t alone in his predicament.

EV batteries are typically usable for five to eight years. Once the battery deteriorates to 70-80% of its original capacity, there’s no real way for it to satisfactorily power an EV.

Around 2016, the Chinese EV industry entered a period of rapid growth, and since 2021, there has been a notable increase in batteries falling into disuse. By 2022, the capacity of decommissioned batteries had reached a total of 34.5 gigawatt-hours (GWh) – or 277,000 tonnes. It is forecast to reach 116 GWh – around 780,000 tonnes – by 2025.

Power batteries contain substances that are harmful to the environment, such as heavy metals and electrolytes, as research by Energy Foundation China highlights. If sent to landfill, these could leak into the ground and upset the pH balance in the soil, threatening ecologies and human health.

Recycling batteries doesn’t just help to reduce this kind of pollution. There is also a pressing need for it, as the EV industry’s demand for batteries increases by the day. Battery production requires several crucial resources for which China has limited supplies, including nickel, cobalt and lithium. China is the world’s largest consumer and importer of lithium, with 65% of demand relying on imports. Effective recycling would reduce this dependency on imports, guaranteeing supply, while also alleviating the negative effects of extracting raw materials at home and abroad.

The government has already recognised the importance of recycling batteries. As early as 2012, the State Council proposed drafting a means of managing battery recycling and reuse, and of establishing a management system for tiered reuse and recycling. However, China is yet to build a mature recycling system. Obstacles in the way of implementing relevant measures have created fertile ground for a black market industry of small workshops.

Recycling chaos in ‘small workshops’

In recent years, several media reports have addressed the problem of trustworthy “whitelist businesses” being unable to supersede small workshops in China’s battery-recycling industry.

Whitelist recyclers are those listed as being compliant with the Industrial Regulatory Requirements for the Integrated Repurposing of Disused Power-storing Batteries. To get on the list, businesses must submit a self-assessment of their technology, industrial work, and energy consumption to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. By the end of December 2022, the ministry had published four lists of compliant companies, of which there were 88 in total. Among them were car and battery manufacturers, as well as independent recycling firms.

Compare that to the number of registered companies involved in the battery recycling industry as a whole: by 2018, there were over 1,000 such businesses, according to data from Qichacha, an online database of China-based companies. This reached 3,400 in 2020, and an explosion of registrations took the number to 24,500 by 2021.

Approved recycling businesses struggle to get their hands on decommissioned batteries, meaning a large amount of high-quality recycling capacity is sitting idle
Zeng Yuqun, chairperson, CATL

Less than one-quarter of decommissioned batteries go to whitelist businesses, leaving the remaining processing work to be acquired by small workshops, according to the Energy Storage Application branch of the China Industrial Association of Power Sources. Other data from market research company Gaogong Lithium Batteries shows that batteries recycled through approved channels only make up 20-30% of the total.

Zeng Yuqun, chairperson of CATL, a lithium-ion battery manufacturer, said: “On the whole, approved recycling businesses struggle to get their hands on decommissioned batteries, meaning a large amount of high-quality recycling capacity is sitting idle.”

Li Xiangnan, executive director of Green Anhui, a grassroots environmental organisation, told China Dialogue that the competitive edge of small workshops lies mainly in price and convenience. They can often lure in car owners with a high buying price and home collection service.

A reporter from Latepost saw firsthand the disassembly process in a small workshop while carrying out investigative interviews. Not wearing any goggles, two male workers cut a crevice in the chassis of a car by hand, then used metal bars to wrench open a larger hole before removing the battery with their bare hands.

Li Xiangnan says that compared to approved businesses, some illegal workshops lower costs by hardly investing in environmental protection. Lots of car owners are not aware of the hidden environmental and safety risks that come with using small workshops. They simply want to sell for a good price, and don’t consider whether the recycling point complies with regulations.

He also points out that while the industry ministry publishes its whitelist, the law does not provide businesses on the list with any compulsory protections – such as subsidies or crack downs on illegal businesses – and small workshops are well concealed and therefore very difficult to regulate. Civil society organisations can normally only monitor non-compliant businesses’ release of pollutants, such as gas and wastewater.

Who is responsible for recycling?

In China, the Provisional Measures on the Recycling and Repurposing of EV Power Storage Batteries stipulates that EV manufacturers bear the primary responsibility for recycling old batteries and should establish a network of recycling service centres, based on their sales network, that can collect them. Stored batteries can then be transferred to recycling business with whom they have agreed partnerships.

It is clear that battery manufacturers, car companies and recycling firms would ideally form their own closed loops. Car companies could directly receive disused batteries from consumers across a comprehensive sales network before passing them onto third-party specialists for recycling. Recycling companies could then extract materials such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel to sell back to manufacturers for making new batteries.

A worker removing battery modules from a worn-out battery of an electric car
An employee removes modules from a worn-out EV battery at the Volkswagen plant, Salzgitter, Germany (Image: Alamy)

However, once a vehicle has been sold to a consumer, the battery becomes the consumer’s property. How then are manufacturers to take on the responsibility of effectively recycling old batteries? Li Xiangnan says that to facilitate this, Green Anhui will be producing a series of videos to educate EV owners about the environmental impact of non-compliant recycling and encourage them to recycle through approved channels.

To achieve a breakthrough as soon as possible, some manufacturers are exploring commercial models. EV manufacturer Nio is launching a “battery-lease” scheme that sees people rent batteries rather than own them. The car becomes the property of the consumer but the rights to the battery belong to a third party, thereby preventing the consumer from selling it on. In a 2021 article for China Dialogue, Yang Muyi, associate director of clean energy at the Asia Society Policy Institute, proposed measures such as deposit return schemes or subsidies to encourage consumers to turn over batteries to the approved channels, limiting the space for black-market operators.

In addition, the government should also take on supervisory responsibilities. As the world’s largest producer of batteries and largest market for EVs, China has already launched a platform for tracing batteries. Every vehicle battery produced in, or imported into, China has a unique serial number, which can be used to help follow the battery and deal with it appropriately throughout its lifecycle.

Yang Muyi told China Dialogue that this tracing platform aims to build the foundations of a standardised battery-recycling system. Battery producers, car companies and retailers, and battery repurposing and recycling companies, are all expected to update information on the platform in a timely manner, ensuring that disused batteries are ultimately dealt with appropriately.

EU battery laws speed up reforms

China is not the only one implementing battery serial numbers. In July 2023, the European Union passed the new European Battery Regulation, which stipulates that by 2026, power batteries must have a passport to be sold in the European Economic Area. Battery passports keep records of manufacturing history, chemical components, technological specifications, and carbon footprint.

Moreover, the law makes demands regarding disused batteries, requiring that 45% of all batteries are recycled by the end of 2023 and 70% by 2030. More detailed stipulations exist for different metals, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper.

The EU is a major importer of lithium batteries from China. Data from the Chinese customs head office shows that in the first quarter of this year, the top five importers of Chinese lithium batteries were the US, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Vietnam, accounting for 62.6% of all exports. Batteries sent to Germany and the Netherlands were worth 27.3 billion yuan (US$3.7 billion) in total, more than the 22.5 billion yuan (US$3.1 billion) imported by the US.

Professor Xu Ming, of Tsinghua University’s School of Materials Science and Engineering, believes the European Battery Regulation initiates a shift towards circularity in the global battery industry by stipulating efficient recycling and quotas for repurposed materials. In order to meet the EU’s requirements, Chinese battery manufacturers, car manufacturers, and other parties should cooperate to build a recycling system for disused batteries, improving their own battery-recycling efficiency and increasing the amount of materials repurposed, he said.

Speaking at the 2023 Summer Davos Forum, around the time the law took effect, CATL chief production officer Ni Jun said the company was negotiating with an EU partner to set up several EV battery-recycling stations, while seeking a partner in North America for the same purpose.

Yang Muyi believes China’s battery-recycling industry is still in its early stages, with the relevant laws and oversights still being refined. The new European Battery Regulation will hopefully press China to strengthen its laws and regulations and standardise industry development. As the market matures, leading exporters to the EU will likely formulate some industry norms. This should spur their development among other domestic companies and gradually drive out non-compliant workshops.

Can recycling reduce mineral extraction?

Yang Muyi thinks that with the transition to renewables, the demand for rare metals like lithium is bound to continue increasing and that in the long-term, recycling them will be an economic given. But recycling a proportion of metals is not just an economic consideration, he says. More importantly, it can play a role in stabilising supply chains and reduce Chinese dependence on imported metals.

However, it will be difficult to meet the growing demand for raw materials through battery recycling alone.

A report by the International Council on Clean Transportation, a Berlin-based thinktank,  suggests that if battery technology were not to change, in the two decades from 2020 to 2040, the accumulated demand for raw materials would be 11-12 million tonnes of lithium, 48-55 million tonnes of nickel, and 3-4 million tonnes of cobalt. This corresponds to about half of the global reserves deemed economically recoverable in 2022, and about 13-18% of total estimated reserves.

The mining of metals crucial to battery production is a delicate issue in China. The recently published 2023 Evaluation of Global Mineral Reserves, from the National Energy Administration, assessed global and domestic reserves of 13 minerals. The report was clear that China’s share of global reserves of nine minerals – including lithium, cobalt, and nickel – were relatively low and in short supply.

The 2021-25 National Security Strategy, reviewed by the Politburo in November 2021, elevated mineral security to a national strategic issue for the first time, positioning stable, strategic mineral supply chains as key work for the state.

For now, the Chinese battery industry will probably choose to mine more. China’s largest lithium compound producer, Ganfeng Lithium, recently announced that the likelihood of recycling replacing mining in the short term is small. “As for the long-term value in recycling heavy-duty lithium batteries, it is projected to become a larger function of the business in the future,” it said.

Mining heavy metals needed for EVs has raised resource and environmental concerns in recent years. The extraction of lithium from salt lakes can consume a large amount of water and electricity, and lithium mine projects undertaken by Chinese companies in Chile and Argentina have caused local disputes. Domestically, lithium mining and processing have caused environmental pollution in Sichuan province and Yichun, Jiangxi province.

Controls on mineral demands are a complex issue. In order to stabilise supply chains in the future, considerations such as developing batteries that are less reliant on these materials, and policy guidance that cuts down demand for new cars, will be of utmost importance.