Electric cars and home batteries are already posing a waste problem in Australia. Here’s why

Key points:

  • Battery recyclers in Australia are currently dealing with a recall by Hyundai and LG
  • Recycling batteries used in electric cars and home energy storage is a new area for the waste management business
  • A code of conduct is in the works

Australians may have only just started buying electric vehicles (EVs) and household batteries, but several product recalls are showing why a national plan for dealing with renewable energy waste may already be needed.

Battery manufacturer LG Energy Solutions (formally LG Chem) has recalled a suite of household batteries after concerns they “may overheat and catch on fire”. It is understood more than 5,000 units have been pulled.

Hyundai has also pulled the batteries from almost 1,000 electric cars from the Australian market as part of a global recall, again amid concerns that they may lead to an electrical short and “start a fire”.

ABC News can reveal that thousands of these products are now starting to be processed by battery recyclers in Melbourne.

Processing the lithium-ion batteries inside these products is a new and complicated task for the Australian recycling industry. They come with a fire risk, contain potentially toxic yet valuable minerals, and are hazardous to the environment if dumped inappropriately.

Projections are that this waste stream will soar in coming years, and there are currently no overarching rules on how companies, consumers or recyclers should manage it.

What’s happening to the recalled cars?

Hyundai’s confirmed that the lithium-ion polymer batteries from its recalled Kona and Ioniq cars in Australia are going to Melbourne recycler EcoBatt.

ABC News visited EcoBatt to see how it was dealing with this emerging waste stream.

Armed with power tools and a fire extinguisher nearby, its workers pulled apart a battery from a Hyundai that was the size of a dining table and broke it down into the small silver lithium-ion cells inside.

EcoBatt’s been recycling the smaller sorts of batteries inside electric appliances, which are generally lead-acid based, for years.

The recycler’s operation manager, Jason Zorzut, explains that the type of battery inside EVs are a newer endeavour for them.

“Obviously, due to their size, it’s a lot more work to break them down to a point where we can actually process them,” he says.

“There’s other inherent risks with lithium batteries, and especially with the size in case of fires and thermal runaways. So we do need to be very careful in the way we handle them and dismantle them.”

Jason says the company had been planning for this waste stream to start coming to them in the next few years, but the recalls have meant it’s arriving early.

Around 31,000 home battery storage units were sold last year in Australia, while the number of EVs was much smaller at 6,000. Most of the batteries inside these come with expected lifespans of between five and 10 years, although that’s increasing as technology improves.

In a recent report on the issue, the CSIRO projected the waste stream from EVs alone could reach 180,000 tonnes by 2036 in Australia.

One of its lead authors, Thomas Ruether, explains the complex issues around dealing with this emerging waste stream and ensuring it doesn’t end up in landfill.

“What sets lithium-ion batteries apart from the majority all other battery types is the electrolyte system used,” he says.

“The electrolyte system consists of flammable and combustible organic solvents in which a lithium salt is dissolved, which is not only corrosive and toxic but releases hydrofluoric acid when in contact with water.

“Many batteries will still contain a considerable amount of residual energy, in particular larger packs such as electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries, and hence present a hazard due to the risk of short-circuiting and electrocution during handling, transportation and storage.

“This year alone, multiple fires caused by battery waste have been reported in the media and by fire brigades.”

EcoBatt’s founder Doug Rowe is particularly concerned about safety issues. The company just brought in a shipping container specifically designed to hold an electric car battery while being stored, to prevent it blowing up and starting a fire.

“It is a new and high-risk business when not done with the correct safety equipment, and few know exactly what the best way is to handle and process these batteries,” Doug says.

Fire risk a very real one in this industry

Dealing with fires is something Envirostream has particular experience with – one of its factories was engulfed in flames in 2019.

The official fire report into the incident — sighted by ABC News — found the most probable cause of the fire was a short-circuit between batteries that were sitting in storage to be recycled.

“We now have fire liners in all collection in retailers and loads are reduced from 200kg per drum to 15kg or less per box,” Envirostream’s managing director Andrew Mackenzie said.

“We have to accept there are lessons to learn with new products, unfortunately.”

The recycling business is owned by ASX-listed company Lithium Australia.

Like EcoBatt, it started off with smaller batteries. But Envirostream is starting to see a rise in lithium-ion batteries from home storage units that reach end of life or break down and cannot be repaired.

It is also currently handling the recycling of the home energy storage batteries that have been recalled by LG Energy Solutions. It also has the contract for dealing with the batteries inside Mitsubishi’s hybrid cars, when they reach end of life or are involved in an accident.

ABC News visited the Envirostream facility in Melbourne and saw battery units inside plastic casing being fed into a compactor.

Battery units with a bit of energy inside them let off power as they’re shredded, with the resulting material coming out warm and steaming. This material is then fed into another machine, which separates the elements further using water and processing.

Envirostream doesn’t charge companies to take their batteries, with the company’s head of commercial Max Lane explaining that it makes money by on-selling the precious materials it recovers.

“We typically recover over 90 per cent of all battery materials for downstream reuse,” he says.

“Depending on the casing and housing materials used this figure can be over 95 per cent for some battery types.”

Max says the most valuable product is the mixed metal dust. It contains the main cathode and anode materials that make batteries work, including lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite.

Because there are no lithium cells being made in Australia, Max explains that this mixed metal dust is shipped overseas to be made back into new batteries.

“Most of our output currently goes to South Korea,” Max says.

“Copper, aluminium, steel and recyclable plastic are separated and sent to local Australian recycling downstream processors for recycling and reuse in various applications.”

EcoBatt follows a similar process.

However, it charges companies to take their waste, as it is still grappling with how to make money off the materials by on-selling them on global markets. The price of what global markets will pay for core minerals fluctuates, making planning even harder.

“There’s a lot of work involved in pulling the part when it comes to labour and mechanical processing of these,” EcoBatt’s Jason Zorzut says.

“Sometimes the cost of refining a battery down to get the raw material back well outweighs the cost of pulling it out of the ground and mining it as a raw material.

“We’re looking at other markets and other ways that we can refine it down further and get a better more purified product at the end of the day to obviously get a better return for it.”

What about Tesla and other major brands?

Along with Hyundai and LG, prominent industry leader Tesla has confirmed to ABC News that it uses a local recycler for its home storage battery units and electric cars in Australia.

It has also confirmed it’ll use that local recycler to manage two Tesla Megapack batteries that went up in flames in Victoria this year.

ABC News approached various other brands in the electric car and home storage space to find out their policies for what happens to their products when they fail, break or reach end of life.

Volkswagen Group confirmed that it uses EcoBatt to recycle Audi batteries, and that it will also have a similar scheme for VW when it launches full electric cars here next year.

German household battery maker Sonnen confirmed it supported end-of-life management for its batteries in Australia, but didn’t specify exactly what it had committed to doing.

Redback – which makes home storage units – said much of its e-waste components were sent to be recycled in Queensland. However, its actual battery cells, which are imported from China, were sent back there if they failed.

“Redback Technologies don’t manufacture batteries and the batteries used are returned to the manufacturer at the end of their life,” a Redback spokesperson said.

What is the national plan for recycling?

There’s currently no national plan on what should be done with all of this emerging waste from renewable energy products — but it is on the agenda for an industry-led initiative called the Battery Stewardship Council (BSC).

“It is certainly up to the individual companies at the moment to recover the battery through their own take-back programs,” its chief executive, Libby Chaplin, says.

“That’s fine in the short term. But in the longer term, we definitely need a much more strategic approach to these batteries.

“This is a really fast-changing environment. And the risks are also changing quickly.

“We have a little bit of time, but not much.”

“It’s really important for consumers to recognise the importance of their purchasing decision. They can be asking right now: what is the end of life plan for this battery for this car?”

Libby’s particularly concerned about Australian companies that simply plan to send their battery cells back offshore.

“It’s not a good outcome for the environment and it’s not a good outcome for Australia’s energy security,” she says.

“We need to be building capacity to recycle those batteries here in Australia — it just makes no sense to be shipping large batteries across half the world for a recycling process that clearly we have the capacity to develop here.”

This area was detailed extensively by the CSIRO’s report. It found that if Australia could figure out how to recycle and then re-use all of the projected battery waste through a circular economy, it could lead to an economic windfall for the economy.

“Using current commodity prices, and these forecasted values, the potential total recoverable value from lithium-ion battery wastes in 2036 is $603 million to $30.1 billion,” author Thomas Ruether told ABC News.

And this isn’t only about money. The minerals in these products are finite.

“Those battery materials are precious,” the BSC’s Libby Chaplin says.

“We need to ensure that we’re recovering those and putting them back into the remanufacturing process so that by the time we get to 2050, we’d haven’t run out of our stocks.”

Industry code of conduct on the horizon

The BSC is about to implement a product recovery scheme for the smaller sorts of non-lithium batteries found in e-waste such as remotes, appliances and watches.

That scheme to deal with an already abundant waste stream took years to organise, and involved getting major companies such as Energizer to commit. The code is voluntary but companies that sign up to it have to ensure there is a plan – and money set aside – for their products’ waste management when they break or reach end of life.

The BSC is now looking to add larger scale waste from electric cars, home storage and big batteries to the scheme.

Doing that will be no easy feat – and will involve wrangling with international companies including Tesla – but Ms Chaplin hopes it can happen within three years.

“There’s a big discussion about whether voluntary or mandatory is the right way to go. We’ve been talking with industry and with government about that, there’s no doubt that mandatory is more costly,” she says.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley told ABC News that the federal government supported a scheme similar to the one being rolled out for smaller scale batteries in January 2022.

“What we found works really well with product stewardship is bringing manufacturers and bringing industry on board without a regulatory stick if you like,” she said.

Extracted from ABC

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