Batteries from green cars could swamp China’s recycling industry

Discarded batteries from electric vehicles can pollute the environment if not handled properly.

Discarded batteries from electric vehicles will soon become a major environmental hazard in China, a think tank has warned.

New energy cars—which at least partly rely on electric engines—have sold in increasing numbers in China in recent years. But as the first wave of such vehicles need new batteries, the country still lacks an adequate collection and recycling system to dispose of the old ones, reported the Economic Information Daily, a newspaper under state news agency Xinhua.

Gaogong Industry Research, a think tank based in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, estimates that a total of 248,000 tonnes of automotive batteries will be discarded in 2020, about 20 times the amount thrown away in 2016. If batteries are not properly recycled, the heavy metals and other chemicals they contain pose a risk to the environment.

“At present, there are at most five big companies engaged in [car battery recycling] across the country,” Gao Xiaobing, deputy dean of Gaogong’s Institute of Lithium Battery Research, told Sixth Tone. “Their joint capabilities were sufficient to process the 12,000 tonnes of used automotive batteries last year, but are far from enough to deal with the surge in years to come.”

Helped by generous subsidies and other preferential policies such as free license plates in Shanghai, more and more Chinese consumers have embraced electric cars in the past few years.

According to data from the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, only slightly more than 8,000 new energy cars were sold across the country in 2011, but this figure soared to more than half a million last year.

The Chinese market for automotive batteries has expanded alongside this growth in car sales, reaching a value of 64.5 billion yuan (US$9.7 billion) in 2016, a year-on-year increase of 70 per cent. The car battery market is now larger than that of traditional lithium batteries used in digital devices.

Joint capabilities were sufficient to process the 12,000 tonnes of used automotive batteries last year, but are far from enough to deal with the surge in years to come.

Gao Xiaobing, deputy dean, Gaogong’s Institute of Lithium Battery Research

In theory, most automotive batteries can be used for eight years, but in practice they have an average shelf life of five years, according to Li Changdong, president of Hunan Bangpu Recycling Technology Company.

“For the first group of domestic electric vehicles assembled between 2012 and 2014, their batteries will expire around 2018,” he told the Economic Information Daily. “In the next three to four years, there will be a sharp rise in the number of used automotive batteries.