Tesla’s in-house plan for battery recycling will set it above others.
Every type of fuel (except perhaps the legendary distilled unicorn tears) has negative effects on the environment. And speaking of fairy tales, the mainstream media loves to speculate that the environmental impact of EVs is just as bad as that of fossil fuel vehicles (it isn’t, as dozens of scientific studies, including one from the champion of diesel vehicles, Volkswagen, make clear).
Many of the “dirty EV” fables mention batteries, and speculate about what happens to them when they wear out. However, if you’re looking for evidence that EVs are an environmental scourge, batteries are a spectacularly bad example to cite, because: (1) they are still quite useful after they reach the end of their service lives in vehicles; and (2) recycling them is quite feasible, both technically and economically. In fact, several automakers are already implementing “second life” programs – reusing battery packs for stationary storage applications – and many firms and research institutions around the world are developing systems for recycling EV batteries.
In Tesla’s 2019 Impact Report, the company discloses the impacts of its products and operations on the environment and local communities. The new report details the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, direct and indirect, generated by Tesla’s various operations, including facilities; sales, service and delivery; and the Supercharger network. It also reports on progress towards the company’s goal of operating its manufacturing, vehicle charging and other operations using 100% renewable energy. Of particular interest is a section on battery recycling.
“A common question we hear is, ‘What happens to Tesla vehicle battery packs once they reach their end of life?’” reads the report. “An important distinction between fossil fuels and lithium-ion batteries as an energy source is that while fossil fuels are extracted and used once, the materials in a lithium-ion battery are recyclable. When petroleum is pumped out of the ground, chemically refined and then burned, it releases harmful emissions into the atmosphere that are not recovered for reuse. Battery materials, in contrast, are refined and put into a cell, and will still remain at the end of their life, when they can be recycled to recover its valuable materials for reuse over and over again.”
Tesla doesn’t yet have many battery packs reaching the end of their service lives, but it has a few packs coming back from “R&D, manufacturing, quality control and service operations” and it works with third-party firms to recycle those batteries. “Today, we work with third-party recyclers around the world to process all scrap and end-of-life batteries to recover valuable metals. Our recycling partners work with us to ensure that non-valuable or non-recoverable materials from the batteries are disposed of responsibly.”
However, this is to be a temporary solution. “At Gigafactory 1, Tesla is developing a unique battery recycling system that will process both battery manufacturing scrap and end-of-life batteries. Through this system, the recovery of critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt will be maximized along with the recovery of all metals used in the battery cell, such as copper, aluminum and steel. All of these materials will be recovered in forms optimized for new battery material production.”
“The closed-loop battery recycling process at Gigafactory 1 presents a compelling solution to move energy supply away from the fossil-fuel based practice of take, make and burn, to a more circular model,” says Tesla. “From an economic perspective, we expect to recognize significant savings over the long term, as the costs associated with large-scale battery material recovery and recycling will be far lower than purchasing and transporting new materials.”