Carolina Curious: What Happens To Spent Electric Vehicle Batteries?

Carolina Curious: What Happens To Spent Electric Vehicle Batteries?

7:41am Jun 20, 2019
Daimler AG is expanding the production capacity of batteries based on lithium-ion technology for hybrid and electric vehicles of the Mercedes-Benz and smart brands. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Our "Carolina Curious" series continues with a look at what may be the future of roadway travel: vehicles that run on electricity. 

WFDD listener David Kaplan says, "I’m concerned about batteries that are used in hybrid and all-electric cars. Since they can’t be recycled, where do they end up? Are they in landfills?"

Reporter David Ford takes us to where the rubber meets the road.

The sleek, aerodynamic, electric vehicles rolling off the production lines today look almost science fiction like. The only thing missing are wings.

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Around 1832, Robert Anderson develops the first crude electric vehicle, but it isn't until the 1870s or later that electric cars become practical. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain. 

But EVs, as they’re known, have actually been around for a while – a long while. The first small-scale electric cars were created in 1828, and they debuted in the U.S. in 1889. Compared to the gas and steam-powered automobiles of the day, they were quiet, easy to drive, and popular. In fact, by the turn of the century, nearly one-third of all the cars on American roadways were electric.

Then along came the widely available Model T, and internal combustion engines have dominated the market ever since. 

Why? The great inventor Thomas Edison may have said it best:

“Electric cars must keep near to power stations,” and “The storage battery is too heavy.” 

Circling back to David Kaplan’s Carolina Curious question, it turns out that even though EVs have been around for more than a century and a half, dealing with those big batteries is still a work in progress. 

As the first generation of modern plugins ages, manufacturers have begun testing out recycling programs to prepare for the inevitable onslaught of battery waste. Global sales passed the 1-million milestone in 2015. That number doubled two years later and it's predicted that in just 20 years, more than half of all new-car sales — some 500 million vehicles— will be electric.

That’s a lot of used batteries in need of recycling. So, where do plug-in and hybrid drivers turn when their EVs lose their get up and go? 

Branton Dodson is a service advisor with the Modern Toyota Service Center in Winston-Salem. 

“We actually have a company that comes and picks the battery up from us and actually sends it back to Toyota,” he says. “So, we are EPA compliant. [We] dispose of the battery properly — not only to, of course, keep the environment — but also to keep a parts room that is clean and free of debris with things just laying around, but also too for the safety of our employees here at the dealership.”  

Automakers are actually required by the government in China to deal with the batteries. That’s where about half the world’s EVs are sold. The European Union requires battery makers to finance the costs of collecting, treating and recycling. In the U.S., there’s no federal guideline on how to handle the spent batteries, but companies like Toyota, Tesla and Nissan have their own refurbishing programs.

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An unsold 2019 S75D sits at a Tesla dealership in Littleton, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

“They’re actually recycling those batteries,” says Dodson. “So, some of them you’ll actually get has been remanufactured. Others, like I say if the customer wishes to have a brand new one, they can — that is more expensive, but you can do so.” 

It’s a win-win. Customers get a fully functioning battery for about half the cost of new. And it makes sense for the manufacturers too. Lithium-ion car batteries often retain up to 70% of their capacity even though they can no longer power a vehicle. Automakers and battery producers can profit from the same pack several times. Plus, recycling is just too expensive. 

By 2025, nearly three-quarters of spent EV batteries will be reused and that’s a huge market.

Back to our listener's other question: do they ever wind up in landfills?

The Environmental Protection Agency says less than 3% of the battery weight is landfilled after recycling. Other than that, says Dodson, not likely.

“If they end up in landfills it’s typically because of someone being negligent and actually putting it in a landfill themselves,” he says. 

In fact, lithium-ion car batteries are required to be recycled under North Carolina state law. They’re banned from landfills, and for good reason says Carolina Recycling Association Executive Director Mary McClellan. She says exposed to the elements, a landfill’s contents generate moisture called leachate.

“And it’s basically garbage juice," says McClellan. “It’s nasty stuff and so batteries, in particular, will leak into the leachate mixed with all the other wonderful things you can imagine that are leaking out of our garbage. This water has to be treated, but nevertheless, heavy metals are not completely containable, even though water treatment systems.”

The result? There’s a good chance those toxins will find their way into our water supply.

But today’s battery manufacturers are using more of a sustainability approach, to make recycling easier and more cost-effective. This year, the Department of Energy launched its first lithium-ion battery recycling research and development center to do just that.

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