EV battery recycling set to accelerate

As EVs age, the need for recycling will grow

June 18, 2012
by Fleet Management staff

Santa Monica, California: The batteries in the earliest hybrid electric Toyota Prius and Honda Insight cars are beginning to falter, creating a need for recycling services. The numbers are small, however, which will give the recycling industry a chance to build capacity before larger numbers of the cars need the parts replaced.

“Just 19,000 Insights and 33,000 Prius models were sold in the US through the 2003 model year. That’s not yet enough to feed a commercial recycling industry,” says green car analyst John O’Dell. estimates that more than two million conventional and plug-in hybrids and electric cars are on the road in the US today, a number that will continue to grow. Automakers sold more than 193,000 hybrids and EVs in the first five months of 2012, easily setting a record for the biggest January-to-May sales volume, despite the heavy price premiums for some of these vehicles.

“Over the long term, recycling will play an important role in reducing the costs of hybrids and EVs,” says O’Dell. “The reuse of the metals and rare-earth compounds that make these batteries work will help keep costs down, and the market for used batteries also will help prop up the resale value of electric-drive vehicles, which is a definite plus for consumers.”

While experts don’t expect a viable commercial recycling market for hybrid and EV batteries for at least another decade, large recycling firms like Umicore and Toxco are testing and developing efficient processes to recycle the batteries before they hit their plants in heavy volumes. They’re also beginning to expand their operations in the US to accommodate the inevitable jumps in volume—Umicore is building a new facility in North Carolina to break down battery packs before shipping the components to its headquarters plant in Belgium for recycling, while Toxco is increasing capacity to develop lithium-ion battery recycling processes at its plant in Lancaster, Ohio, under a US$9.5 million federal grant.

Once battery recycling hits full throttle, it should be a painless process for consumers. Auto dismantlers and designated recyclers will handle all the recycling; the car owner won’t have to do anything except get the vehicle and its faltering battery to a dealer.