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Battery sector a rollercoaster with more highs than lows

With so many modern products including a battery, it means more business for recyclers. But it’s becoming more urgent for them to update their business model and only real innovators will stay ahead of the curve.

This article is based on our review of the annual International Congress for Battery Recycling, published in our latest issue / Reading time: 4.5 min.

A total of 14 500 tonnes of portable batteries were collected for recycling in France by waste management companies Corepile (mostly single-use) and Screlec (mostly rechargable) in 2018. This is almost 47% of all batteries put on the market. ‘Just a few per cent shy of our 50% goal for 2021,’ says Frédéric Hedouin, ceo of Corepile.

He attributes the success of the scheme to a ‘very active’ media campaign, both online, at schools and on the street. This included promoting battery take-back options at major events, like cycling’s Tour de France – see the video below.

‘Because more than 255 000 e-bikes were sold in France in 2017, we established a dedicated e-bike battery collection scheme in partnership with Union Sport and Cycle last year,’ Hedouin says. It proved to be a good idea with 15 000 batteries recovered at 700 collection points in the first year.

Outlook for lithium-ion

At the moment, only around 5% of lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are recycled in the European Union. The recycling performance isn’t much better in other parts of the world. In terms of battery manufacture, China represents approximately 60% of lithium-ion cell production, followed by Japan (17%), South Korea (15%) and nations such as Australia and New Zealand at around 5%. The US market represents only about 2% of production, with EU member states even lower (not even 1%).

Recycling practices need to catch up with intensifying production, urges Christophe Pillot of Avicenne Energy. He expects the worldwide lithium-ion battery market to be worth upwards of US$ 40 billion (EUR 37 billion) by 2025.

Miracle on the Hudson

For battery recyclers, safety represents over 10% of annual recurring costs,’ notes Eric Nottez, president of SNAM. The France-based recycler specialises in processing nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion batteries. Nottez concedes that LIBs cause problems in the waste stream ‘more often than we’d like’. 

‘We are living in a zero risk tolerance society – with an intense fear that things may go wrong,’ he adds. ‘Obviously, not all risks can be avoided while some can be predicted. The truth is, we have to realise that ensuring safety is expensive. In the end, it’s worth it.’

 ‘When talking about batteries and safety, most conversations are about the worst-case scenario. Exploding cars or big fires at recycling plants,’ observes Ghislain Lescuyer, ceo of battery manufacturer Saft. Then he mentions a name that sounds strangely familiar: Chesley Sullenberger.

‘Does anyone remember? He was the pilot that landed an aeroplane – an Airbus A320 with 155 passengers – on the Hudson river between New York and New Jersey following a catastrophic engine failure. Everyone on board made it out alive thanks to the pilot’s quick thinking,’ Lescuyer reminds his audience.

The fateful incident happened in January 2009 and was made into a movie,  ‘Sully’, starring none other than Tom Hanks in the title role. ‘Not many people know that batteries had an important role to play. In fact, Saft, which supplies aviation batteries to 80% of the world’s aircraft, provided the back-up battery that helped land flight 1549 safely on the ground. Or rather, in the water.’ Some delegates exclaim in excitement when they hear this. ‘To me, this proves the power of batteries,’ the ceo says with a knowing nod.

He adds that Saft, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, is now focussing on creating advanced lithium-ion energy storage solutions (ESS). ‘The fact is, there are so many ambitious renewable energy projects. The downside is that a lot of energy is lost at big wind farms in, for example, Denmark,’ Lescuyer says. ‘That’s where our battery systems come in. They can store the generated wind energy for later, when people need it.’

He foresees major growth in this sector of around 23% (by GWh capacity) per annum in the next five years. And yet, it remains ‘uncertain’ whether EES recycling will be a profitable business – at least in the short-term.

What’s happening in Russia?

‘We recycle 200 tonnes of waste per month,’ says Vladimir Matsyuk, director of e-scrap recycling firm Megapolis who notes that only around 2% of batteries are currently being recycled in Russia. ‘We specialise in treating e-scrap and in recent years we’ve been handling more and more batteries.’

Megapolis relies on hydrometallurgical recycling methods. It now has over 2 400 collection points for discarded electronics and batteries. Around 94% of batteries collected are MnZn. Matsyuk says Megapolis collected 409.4 tonnes of batteries for recycling last year. This is a leap forward compared to the 2017 total of 338.9 tonnes. Prospects for this year are good since, up until June, almost 210 tonnes of batteries had been collected.

The Russian entrepreneur grins as he thinks back to the recycling performance in 2013, when Megapolis processed less than 10.5 tonnes. He explains the recent boost in battery recycling is due to collaboration in 2015 with big players like Duracell, Ikea and Mediamarkt. By joining forces, the partners have recycled almost 20 million batteries.

‘The Russian government is ambitious. It wants the industry to realise a battery collection rate of 100% in the next couple of years. That will be fun… and a lot of work,’ he laughs. ‘We’ll do our best, of course. But such an overnight change will be a miracle.’

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