Hazards Ahead: Electric Cars Face Battery Recycling Hurdles In Europe

European recyclers have called for changes to EU regulations on hazardous metals and waste shipment that “sometimes stand in the way” of a fully European electric car manufacturing value chain.

For a European electric vehicle battery, life could begin in a lithium mine in northern Portugal. The metal could be sandwiched between cobalt cathodes from Finland at a ‘gigafactory’ in Sweden before being transported to a car factory in Slovakia.

If the European Battery Alliance achieves all of its ambitions, the continent-wide journey would be one of the possible future supply chains for a 100% European electric car battery.

Launched two years ago as an eleventh-hour attempt to compete with the Asian battery industry, the EBA wants to go big on electric cars for Europe. With talk of 10 ‘gigafactories’ needed by 2030, and the possibility of an ‘Airbus-style’ industrial pact, one thing is for certain – the electric vehicle supply chain will be full of metals.

European battery recyclers are beginning to test-run these chains. But “EU regulations can sometimes stand in the way,” said Jan Tytgat, from Umicore, a Belgian materials technology company which is now the world’s largest recycler of precious metals.

Namely, the metals required are beginning to hit snags in the EU’s chemicals legislation, REACH, which covers hazardous substances across the member countries.

In a letter to the European Commission, Eurometaux, the metals industry association, called out the EU’s “conflicting signals” on the issue. “While our products are praised for their contribution to circularity, the hazard classification of many of our metals and their unavoidable presence across different recycling streams would make it harder rather than easier to use as secondary materials,” they wrote.

The substances in question are cobalt and nickel, lead compounds and cadmium. They are included on REACH because exposure to them can be toxic to people and the environment.

Chris Heron, Communications Manager at Eurometaux, says “the reality of batteries and metallurgy is that hazardous metals are necessary”.

The industry wants to avoid of further restrictions or outright bans on battery metals.

Heron says the metals association is asking for a “proportionate” regulation, which focuses on measures in the workplace as the only place where there is a risk of exposure.

Transport of hazardous waste

A parallel challenge is the transport of the metals between member states, en route to being recycled. The problem for the recycling industry is that some EU countries see the battery metals as hazardous, while others do not.

Imagine the battery – now locked up in a car – finishes up in Lithuania. To reach a recycling plant in Belgium, for example, it will need to cross multiple borders.

According to Heron, different rules across EU member states about the transit of hazardous waste “already mean it can take anything from several weeks to a year for the necessary approvals to allow those shipments to reach the recycling facility”.

“This is really a topic that is becoming more and more of a burden,” Tytgat said at a recent EURACTIV event.