Battery Production and Disposal a Mounting Issue for Developing Nations

According to the International Energy Agency, findings have revealed an expected jump in EVs from 3 million vehicles in 2017 to 23 million in 2030, with similar growth expected for rechargeable batteries, with the market for cathode – the positive electrode of the lithium-ion battery – forecast to reach $58 billion in 2024, up from an estimated $7 billion in 2018.

UNCTAD reports the expected boom in mining for the raw materials used to make rechargeable batteries will raise environmental and social concerns that must be urgently addressed.

“Most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects of electric vehicles,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight.” This also extends to the disposal process, when second-hand vehicles are exported to developing economies, such as Fiji, where newly manufactured vehicles are beyond the purchasing power of the majority of car buyers.

More than half of the world’s lithium resources lie beneath Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, and nearly 50% of cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which accounts for over two-thirds of global production of the mineral. Meanwhile, approximately 80% of natural graphite reserves are in Brazil, China and Turkey.

The dust from excavation may contain toxic metals including uranium that are linked to health problems such as respiration diseases and birth defects, and may contain sulphur minerals that can generate sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. This process, known as acid mine drainage, can devastate rivers, streams and aquatic life for hundreds of years.

The production of these materials raises a wide range of environmental issues, and their appropriate disposal is now a pressing environmental concern for markets in the Pacific which do not have reverse logistics protocols well-established to handle re-manufacturing and/or disposal of these various battery components.