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Are recyclers getting lost in the Lithium Triangle?

Have you ever heard of the Lithium Triangle? Not the mysterious area near Bermuda, where people supposedly disappear. No, a rare point in Latin America where the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia and meet; a stretch of land rich in lithium.

A visually stunning carpet of bright yellow and green shades appears on my screen as I’m reading up on metals trends. I’ve never seen such a landscape before. An industrial landscape, I correct myself. This is a modern-day mine. A man-made place developed to support our quest for sustainability. After all, lithium doesn’t fall from the sky. And it’s that valuable metal which powers our phones, laptops and electric cars.

In short; it’s the technology metal of the future. We’re going to need more of it. Lots more. In fact, market analysts observe global lithium demand rose by almost 9% in 2019. Based on growing momentum, it’s predicted annual grow fivefold by 2030.  

I’ve not even taken into account next generation products like e-cigarettes; a booming segment that just hit US$ 6 billion while simultaneously creating a pesky new littering and landfilling problem.

Meanwhile, soaring oil and gas prices is further fuelling installations of energy storage systems. GlobalData reports total installed capacity reached 21GW last year, led by China and the US. A recent headline that comes to mind spoke of a ‘battery bonanza’.  

Let’s circle back to the Lithium Triangle for a second. These brightly coloured swimming pools are actually salt flats, also called salt deserts. They contain minerals stemming from underground lakes. Different levels of salt create various shades.

What happens is a crew of miners drill holes in the sediment so brine comes to the surface, after which the water is evaporated. This leaves a mixture of potassium, manganese, borax and lithium salt that is carefully filtered out. An arduous process that takes up to 18 months before successful extraction.

It’s worth pointing out that Latin America owns about 50% of the Earth’s lithium reserves. Projects are being developed in British Columbia as we speak to explore mining potential closer to home.  

It’s been debated whether or not this wet mining approach is truly sustainable. Granted, it caters to battery production, thus boosting the uptake of the world’s EV fleet and ‘clean energy’. On the other hand, one could argue we’re just switching out one type of mining for another.

It’s reasonable to ask what the impact is on the quality of air, soil and water. And how local workers are being compensated. Biodiversity is another issue as it’s been documented that Chile’s flamingo population is at risk. It’s yet unclear what the actual cost of producing ‘green’ batteries is.

What I do know is we’ve gotten awfully good at stripping the Earth of its natural resources. Our eagerness to make a profit (and our ambitions to save the world) tends to block out any scepticism. I can’t help but wonder; is the expanding Lithium Triangle is going to trigger another gold rush?

And will it make recycling lithium from the products we own and ultimately throw away a very, very last resort? Take the vapes I mentioned earlier, for example. In the UK alone, up to 10 tonnes of lithium hidden inside these devices is dumped in landfills each year. It’s hard to imagine all this valuable metal going up in smoke.

I’ll leave you with my favourite eco-friendly Scrabble word; “urban mine”. Statista researchers believe approximately 345 000 tonnes of battery metals – mostly manganese – are lying in wait in Europe right now. That’s about 17 000 tonnes for secondary lithium ready to be recycled. Serious numbers, serious potential. What are we doing about that? 

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