Battery recycling could help make electric vehicle production more sustainable

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Battery recycling could be key in making electric vehicle production more sustainable
  • One social media site has had enough of climate misinformation
  • Tax credit for carbon capture will delay climate action, says environmental advocate

Battery recycling could be key in making electric vehicle production more sustainable

(Duane Burleson/Associated Press)

The humble battery is having a moment, as countries around the world turn their attention to electric vehicles (EVs) to cut carbon emissions from transportation. 

The key to transitioning from gasoline-powered cars to electric hinges on efficient, long-lasting batteries. But the production of batteries depends on the (finite) supply of a bunch of key minerals like lithium and cobalt, which is already leading to a scramble by major world powers and corporations to secure these resources.

Most of the world’s supply of lithium comes from just four countries: Australia, Chile, China and Argentina. The supply of cobalt is even more concentrated, with 70 per cent of it coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo alone.

That makes it important to secure another source of these minerals — by recycling old batteries.

“The more EVs that are bought and put through the recycling process, the more we can offset, in the future, raw materials from the ground and have a more sustainable source for the raw materials,” said Kunal Phalpher, chief strategy officer at battery recycling company Li-Cycle.

Li-Cycle, which is based in Toronto, is building a “hub and spoke” system to deal with old batteries. Phalpher said that transporting heavy EV batteries can be expensive and tricky. The company’s spokes are smaller facilities that would be closer to where the batteries are coming from, thereby cutting down on transportation costs. 

Batteries (like the one from a Chevy Bolt seen in the photo above) are shredded into a “black mass” in the Li-Cycle’s spoke facilities, then sent to a central hub facility that processes it into useful minerals like cobalt, nickel and lithium that can be reused in batteries and other products. 

The company operates spoke facilities in Kingston, Ont., and Rochester, N.Y., with more on the way. It’s building its first hub facility in Rochester. 

Phalpher said Li-Cycle can recover up to 95 per cent of the materials in old batteries.

EV batteries last about 10 years. Phalpher said he expects a large number of EV batteries in Ontario to start reaching the end of their lifecycle by 2030.

Nikki Skuce, who co-authored a report with the Pembina Institute last year about EV battery recycling policy in British Columbia, says the federal and provincial governments need to formulate an action plan for used batteries.

“I think it’s great to see all of these incentives and targets for electric vehicles,” Skuce said. “But we also really need to look at the whole life cycle and be investing now in that recycling capacity.”

The Ontario government released a critical minerals strategy last month. It is aimed at promoting exploration for minerals in the province, improving mining regulations and investing in research and development. The strategy is linked to the government’s plan to get automakers to build electric cars in Ontario, with batteries also built locally from minerals extracted in the province.

Increasing recycling capacity would mean Ontario and Canada could be less reliant on mining — or importing — these minerals.

“We’re in a climate crisis. We absolutely need to transition off fossil fuels,” Skuce said. “But we can’t do it by creating another issue and another extractive industry that has been known to trample on human rights and pollute waterways and the rest of it.”

Phalpher said people would be surprised by just how recyclable batteries are — and how valuable the minerals in old batteries can be.

“I think even your average consumer with your cellphone and your laptop doesn’t realize how much of that material can be recovered and brought back into the economy,” he said. 

“I think that’s something that the industry wants to continue to improve.”

Inayat Singh

Reader feedback

A number of you wrote in to respond to Alice Hopton’s piece last week on the professional chefs who rave about induction stoves.

Lindsay Kennedy:

“Great article. We’ve been using an induction stove for about eight years. I may have missed it in your article, but I don’t think you mentioned that not all pots work on an induction stove top; they need to be cast iron or steel. Test your pots with a magnet. If it sticks, your pots will work.”

Claudio Procopio:

“We have used an induction stove for the last 12 years and would not go back to electric or gas burner stoves for environmental and practical culinary reasons mentioned in your article.

“A cautionary note.… Some of the heat generated in the cooking utensils is transferred to the induction stove’s top by conduction. Remove the hot pan and the stove’s top is just as hot as the pan. We have a cat who hops onto the countertop and wanders onto the stovetop. For his safety, after every time we use the stove, we place a cool pan or pot over the hot spot until by conduction it cools the stovetop to room temperature. Never tell children that the stove’s top does not get hot. Their curiosity may test your pronouncement!”

Several readers, including Marlene Campbell, wrote in with a caution for people with pacemakers or insulin pumps: the magnetic fields generated by induction stoves can interfere with these devices. For that reason, organizations such as the British Heart Foundation and induction stove manufacturers say people with such devices should keep them 60 centimetres away from an induction cooktop when it’s on.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! As countries work to phase out fossil fuels, what can be learned from Aberdeen, Scotland, the oil capital of Europe? This weekend, an encore play of What On Earth‘s documentary The Trouble with TransitionWhat On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Climate misinformation on social media

Social media does not have a great reputation when it comes to safeguarding what’s true. Whether it’s political discourse or the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, the major platforms have been fairly lax about policing erroneous statements. Mark Zuckerberg perhaps put it most succinctly when he told U.S. Congress that his company, Facebook (now Meta), shouldn’t become “arbiters of truth.” 

Climate change is another topic that invites a lot of lies and bad-faith posting, but one social media site has decided to draw a line in the sand. Earlier this month, Pinterest announced that it would ban all climate change misinformation on its platform, including regular posts and advertisements. Its definition of misinformation is quite broad, including posts that deny the existence of human-caused climate change, content that “misrepresents scientific data” and mendacious statements about extreme weather events. 

In a statement, Pinterest said, “The expanded climate misinformation policy is yet another step in Pinterest’s journey to combat misinformation and create a safe space online.” This is a significant step given the sheer quantity of counterfactual content on social media. A report released last year, for example, revealed the extent to which bots have flooded Twitter with climate misinformation.

(Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Tax credit for carbon capture will delay climate action, says environmental advocate

(Kyle Bakx/CBC)

The federal government’s new carbon capture tax credit will delay Canada’s progress on climate action, extending our production of fossil fuels, says one environmental advocate.

“It’s good news for the fossil fuel lobbyists,” Julia Levin, senior climate and energy program manager at the non-profit group Environmental Defence, told What On Earth host Laura Lynch.

As part of its 2022 budget revealed last week, the government has promised up to $10 billion and counting to support carbon capture projects — including proposals from the oil and gas industry — with climate-specific spending totalling $9.1 billion.

The investment tax credit would reimburse carbon capture projects that grab pollution at the source to prevent new emissions by up to 50 per cent. Successful projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing existing pollution, would be reimbursed up to 60 per cent.

Currently, most of the captured carbon dioxide in Canada is used in a decades-old process called enhanced oil recovery, where CO2 is pushed into an oil or gas reservoir to scrub out more fossil fuels. While that process is excluded from the credit, fossil fuel companies are still eligible to apply.

Levin said she’s pleased enhanced oil recovery is “off the table,” but notes it would be hard to enforce how captured carbon dioxide is used in the future.

For Michael Bernstein, executive director of non-profit group Clean Prosperity, the move to include the oil and gas sector makes sense.

“If the oil and gas sector has projects that will reduce those greenhouse gas emissions and the government believes that those are sensible investments, I don’t see why we would exclude those,” he said.

In January, 400 academics signed a letter to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland urging the exclusion of the oil and gas sector from the credit. In March, Environmental Defence published a report outlining concerns about the use of the tax credit to extend the life of oil and gas production in Canada.

Levin doesn’t oppose fossil fuel companies building carbon capture to reduce the emissions intensity of oil and gas production. But she said the responsibility to pay for it should fall on the industry.

Taxpayers should not “subsidize the most profitable sector in the country and one that’s fuelling the climate crisis,” she said.

Bernstein sees the financial reward of the investment tax credit as a way for Canada to continue its production of fossil fuels for now. He cautions that all approved projects need to meet their promises of capturing or removing carbon dioxide. However, the details on how the government will monitor or enforce that are “a bit thin,” he said.

For Levin, Canada’s track record of holding oil and gas companies accountable on environmental rules doesn’t give her confidence it will be any different with carbon capture.

“Our track record is, time and time again, letting oil and gas companies off the hook.” 

Against the backdrop of the latest United Nations climate report and a stark warning from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres that “new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” Levin hoped for more investment in renewable energy. 

According to a report by Environmental Defence, between 2018 and 2020 the federal government spent 14 times more money on financing the fossil fuel sector than it did on renewables like wind and solar. 

“That ratio’s not OK,” said Levin. 

Bernstein said the investment tax credit is “a step in the right direction” for what he thinks could be an industry dedicated to “carbon management.” 

Other industries are poised to benefit from the investment tax credit, including cement, steel and chemical production — all processes which produce greenhouse gasses. New projects designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will also be eligible. 

According to Levin, all of these initiatives already have funding available from the federal government. 

“This tax credit is about a giant new subsidy to oil and gas companies. It’s not about those other sectors.”

Molly Segal

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty