By Jason Giovannettone, Climate and Sustainability Director
In response to our post on hybrid and electric vehicles (EVs), we received these questions: What are the issues related to battery disposal, and are we solving one problem by creating another? Disposal is just one of the potential issues related to these batteries, which also include emissions from battery charging and human rights concerns related to their manufacturing (more details on this later).
Conventional vehicles use lead-acid batteries. Because these batteries contain lead, which is a carcinogen and very harmful to the environment, a large portion of them is recycled. Even so, tens of thousands of tons of lead are lost to landfills each year or released into the environment during the mining and manufacturing process.
Batteries used in more recent hybrid and electric vehicles are typically lithium-ion batteries, which are very recyclable though their rate of being recycled is far below that of lead-acid batteries. This is partially because lead is a more toxic heavy metal than lithium. However, lithium-ion batteries also contain small amounts of other toxic heavy metals such as cobalt, graphite, nickel, and manganese. One advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they have considerably longer lifetimes of at least 10 to 12 years. A big disadvantage is that the cost of replacing a lithium-ion battery can be several thousands of dollars.
A used lithium-ion battery can easily be recycled by contacting the auto dealer from which you purchased your vehicle.
Emissions from Battery Charging
Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles need to be plugged into a 120-volt or 240-volt source in order to maintain a full charge. The emissions caused by the use of electricity to charge these vehicles is often overlooked. If you live in a region where a significant portion of your electricity comes from renewable sources such as solar and/or wind, you have your own solar panels or you have bought into a solar farm, this is not an issue. But if you live in a region that still relies heavily on fossil fuels for energy, emissions created by charging your vehicle can almost completely offset the benefits of higher fuel efficiency. For more details, please refer to Page 19 of this report.
Recycle your lithium-ion batteries. For more information on the disposal of lithium-ion batteries used not only for vehicles but also for a wide range of other applications, visit the EPA’s website.