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Building an accurate map of battery waste flows

In a world driven more and more by batteries, knowledge is key: that was the message from speakers at the recent E-Waste World Expo in Frankfurt. Although recycling technologies are becoming more advanced, the pooling of data to optimise the recycling industry itself still needs much work.

As an example, more than 3000 tonnes of cobalt disappears every year from the EU market but it is unclear where the material goes.

‘Is it ‘lost’ because of exports? From illegal processing? Or hoarding?’ asks Johanna Emmerich, scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. She worked on ORAMA, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 project which maps battery waste flows. ‘The chances are, we are notably underestimating the lifespan of battery cells. They are being used longer than we anticipated thanks to second-life applications,’ Emmerich adds.

Researchers and scientists collaborating on the project gathered market data to create the Urban Mine Platform.

Sharing the findings, Emmerich reports there were 1.2 million tonnes of zinc-based batteries in the EU region last year. ‘This is up from 480 000 tonnes in 2012,’ she points out.

Stocks of nickel metal hydride batteries reached 625 000 tonnes, up from only 92 000 tonnes in 2012, and there were around 450 000 tonnes of nickel cadmium batteries, up from 77 000 tonnes. Rechargable lithium-based batteries totalled 425 000 tonnes, up from 180 000 tonnes. Lastly, there were around 35 000 tonnes of primary lithium-based batteries in stock in 2018, up from 14 000 tonnes in 2012. The growth in this last segment is ‘much, much slower’ than other battery chemistries, Emmerich notes.

‘It’s clear that, in a world of limited resources, we need to know how much of these resources we are actually using – and how long will they last,’ she stresses. ‘Big data is everything. While Google knows a lot – for example, how much beer are we drinking every year and from which brands – there is very little information about product life cycles,’ she laments.

‘When we started looking into battery waste per household, the first result that popped up was from 1999 and the early 2000s. Needless to say, that information was horribly out-dated and not reliable.’

Data regarding portable, industrial and automotive batteries is generally more up-to-date and ‘is out there somewhere if you know where to look’. Even so, different countries tend to have different ways of reporting and interpreting battery waste flows. ‘Some nations don’t report any data at all to Eurostat or other such organisations.’

Ultimately, Emmerich advocates transparency, especially because recycling relies on many stakeholders in the value chain working together. ‘In order to be successful, we need to speak the same language.’

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