Electric Cars Aren’t Living Up to The Eco-Friendly Hype. Here’s One Way to Change That.

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This series is sponsored by VertueLab. VertueLab did not provide editorial input.

It’s sad losing a hero. 

For years, you think your hero is flawless, limitless, invincible and then you learn that they don’t like kittens, or that they’ve never read the Harry Potter books. 

It’s a tough day, and it’s similar to what’s happening with many Americans and their electric cars. 

Electric cars were once hailed as a cure to our country’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels, and they were considered so disruptive to the status quo that oil companies had to team up to kill them.

But now our hero is starting to look more human, and we’re realizing that electric cars have two serious Achilles’ heels:

  • The electricity that powers electric cars is mostly generated by burning coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, which dramatically reduces their climate benefit.
  • Their lithium-ion batteries only last an average of eight years, which creates an unsustainable amount of waste that would overwhelm landfills if not recycled.

Here’s the good news: The challenge of decarbonizing our electricity grid has been a top progressive policy goal for years now, and we’re already starting to see meaningful progress, from states pledging to phase out coal to American consumers embracing solar power.  

But the battery problem is getting less attention, even though its impact is just as urgent: By 2030, an estimated 11 million tons of lithium-ion batteries will reach the end of their life, and we still don’t have a good plan for what to do with them. 

So what’s the fix? 

Reader Brian Catterson asked that question for our new series about emerging solutions to the climate crisis. Here’s what I learned:

“The batteries for electric cars are difficult to recycle, and that could potentially create a huge waste problem. What’s the solution?” Brian Catterson

There’s a silver lining to the battery waste problem

It’s scary to think that an Olympic swimming pool-sized load of battery waste could start piling up every few days if we don’t come up with better recycling solutions. 

But the scale of the problem is also what makes a solution more feasible.

Not only are governments and researchers paying more attention, but a whole new business sector is forming to meet the challenge  and to capitalize on the reality that many powerful interests have a stake in seeing this sector succeed:

  • The auto industry is counting on battery recycling to lower the cost of production on its electric vehicles, and to comply with regulations in countries that hold car companies responsible for disposing of spent batteries.
  • Governments are counting on battery recycling to make the electric vehicle market more competitive, and ultimately to help them meet their climate goals. 
  • Environmental groups are counting on battery recycling to reduce waste, but also to reduce the need for lithium and other elements to be mined out of the ground.

Meanwhile, even the Trump administration seems invested in finding a solution. 

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy launched a $5.5 million prize competition to spur investment in lithium-ion battery recycling, and the agency’s new ReCell Center is helping lead research and development 

Why finding a solution to battery waste is so complex

The technology already exists to recycle used lithium batteries and prevent them from going into landfills. That’s actually the easy part. 

The hard part? Figuring out a scalable supply chain that allows spent batteries to be identified, collected, transported, recycled, and returned to production, all without setting anything on fire or breaking the bank. 

It would take a book to cover that entire process, so let’s just focus on one part of the challenge: transporting spent batteries to a recycling facility.

As you may have learned from the Samsung Galaxy debacle, the lithium-ion batteries that are used in everything from cell phones to hoverboards to electric cars can explode if they become unstable. 

And the bigger the battery, the bigger the explosion, which is why electric-vehicle batteries are considered a Class 9 hazard that require extra safety precautions whenever they’re transported. 

Does that Class 9 status make recycling batteries impossible? No. 

But expensive? Yes, and that expense gets baked into the price of the battery itself, and ultimately into the price of an electric car.  

The reason for optimism

The Oregon-based company OnTo Technology received one of the Department of Energy’s challenge grants last year, and it’s now working on several battery recycling challenges, including the thorny shipping problem. 

Founder Steven Sloop says the company is developing a process that “deactivates” spent batteries, turning them from Class 9 hazards into more-or-less harmless bricks.

The impact could be huge, especially for transportation departments in cities like Portland and Seattle that are trying to electrify their bus fleets

Unlike car batteries that can last eight or more years, the average bus battery only lasts about three years,1 so recycling expenses add up fast, especially for shipping. 

Sloop says about half the cost of recycling an EV battery cost comes from getting that battery from Point A to Point B. 

But if the batteries didn’t need to be treated like Class 9 hazards, the price of shipping them would go way down and that could help make the sustainable battery economy a reality.

This series is sponsored by VertueLab. VertueLab did not provide editorial input.


1. There’s some evidence that lithium-ion batteries for buses may now last six years or longer, depending on the type of battery and amount of use.