By 2030, Statista estimates the demand for lithium-ion batteries around the world will have increased by 7x. A lot of this growth focuses on the demand for electric vehicles and the decline of gas- or diesel-powered trucks, cars, and SUVs. While lithium-ion batteries (LiBs) help us live technology-rich lives, these rechargeable batteries are also environmental hazards. 

When they reach their end of life, they become a hassle. You can’t throw them out, but some areas don’t make recycling them easy. Yet, every lithium-ion battery is filled with valuable resources that provide the opportunity for urban mining. Our guide to recycling LiBs covers what urban mining is and how people should be recycling these batteries.

How a Lithium-Ion Battery Is Made

Before you can even explore the benefits of urban mining and LiB recycling, it’s helpful to understand the basics of how lithium-ion batteries are made. 

LiBs are made from a series of components:

  • Anode
  • Cathode
  • Electrolyte
  • Separator

Those form a cell, and many batteries used today have multiple cells, so you’re repeating the process. The first step is to create an electrode slurry. Depending on whether it’s an anode or cathode, a material is chosen to blend with a binder and a conductive additive. It’s then coated onto metal foil to form an anode or cathode and dried.

The foils are compacted and cut to the right size. A second drying process ensures any residual moisture is removed. The battery cell is assembled and filled with an electrolyte. After this step, a Solid Electrolyte Interphase (SEI) is formed on the anode, which involves electrochemistry activation. The finished cell is aged, degassed, and tested to ensure it’s reaching the correct capacity and voltage.

While advancements keep tweaking the amount of materials used, most LiBs contain:

  • Cobalt
  • Graphite
  • Lithium
  • Manganese
  • Nickel

According to the Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center, the amount of materials used in 2016 were:

  • 5,505 metric tons of cobalt – 5% of it came from mining
  • 34,677 metric tons of graphite
  • 4,497 metric tons of lithium – 11.8% of it came from mining
  • 5,195 metric tons of manganese
  • 14,841 metric tons of nickel – 0.7% of it came from mining

As battery production ramps up, mining of these materials strips the earth of raw materials, and there is the chance that we could run out. That’s why a switch to recycled or synthetic materials is important. By 2017, 60% of graphite was synthetic. As of 2023, the top five world lithium reserves were at:

  • Chile – 9.3 billion metric tons
  • Australia – 6.2 billion metric tons
  • Argentina – 3.6 billion metric tons
  • China – 3 billion metric tons
  • United States – 1.1 billion metric tons

With battery production increasing for electronic devices and EVs, the risk of running out is a worry. That’s why urban mining is so important.

Understanding the Goals of Urban Mining

Urban mining is the process of recovering materials from waste materials instead of mining for raw materials. Instead of throwing out a broken tablet or e-reader, you recycle it and materials within the rechargeable batteries are recovered and reused.

Because LiBs contain critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, their potential for urban mining is huge. Materials are extracted for new LiBs, and the glass and plastic from the cases on things like smartphones, tablets, and laptops can be recycled and reused, too.

Urban mining supports a circular economy. Consumers purchase an item, use it until it’s no longer needed, recycle it to be turned into new products, and purchase goods made with recycled materials. It’s an essential part of keeping waste out of landfills and protecting the environment.

Explore the Benefits of LiB Recycling

The benefits of LiB recycling are numerous. At the very least, it’s designed to stop pollution. With the metals and toxins in LiBs, all of that can leach into the soil and groundwater. Landfills are set up with linings that prevent them from getting into the soil, but there are no guarantees those linings will still be structurally sound in 100 years. 

These laws didn’t go into effect until the late 1970s, so it hasn’t even been 50 years yet. Liners were originally clay, but composite liners over a clay base are more common now. New landfills also have to have a leachate collection system. The release of gas is also prevented. Once a landfill is full, it has to be covered to keep soil erosion and liquids from getting into the soil. 

Despite this, there are still problems. The second-largest landfill in Los Angeles County was recently ordered by the EPA to take immediate steps to stop the release of hazardous liquid waste, such as benzene, that is escaping into local waterways. 

Recycling LiBs also helps replenish materials needed to make new batteries. That provides economic opportunities as new recycling plants get built and need to hire new workers. You have the construction jobs that are created, the jobs within the recycling plant, and jobs for truckers who need to haul the materials around the country. That also increases tax revenues, which helps communities.

How Are LiBs Recycled?

When it comes to recycling LiBs, two different techniques are commonly used and one is gaining ground. 

  • Direct Recycling – This method is newer and recycles each material directly and reuses it. While it doesn’t break down the chemical compositions, it’s still in the early stages and needs research and tweaking to avoid loss of integrity and materials.
  • Hydrometallurgy – Uses a fluid solution to dissolve and extract the metals, but on the negative side, it requires a lot of energy to complete the process.
  • Pyrometallurgy – While hydrometallurgy uses fluids, pyrometallurgy uses extreme heat to melt and separate the materials. Some materials are lost in the process, and it creates polluted air, so careful air filtration is required.

The Challenges the Industry Faces and the Impact of Consumer Behavior

Despite its potential, LiB recycling faces several challenges, and the biggest is finding a cost-effective, comprehensive way to recycle the materials without adding to air pollution. Beyond that, there are other challenges.

It needs to be easier for people. If someone is in a rural area that’s hours from the nearest recycling center, the desire to drive all of that way isn’t going to be appealing. However, many smaller towns and districts lack the resources to establish a recycling center that’s open enough hours and has the funds for wages, building costs, etc. 

The infrastructure needs to be in place to make it easy for people to recycle. Establishing drop-off centers near major shopping centers could help. Having the trucks and personnel in place to haul and then sort items helps. Regulations also need to support LiB recycling.

Finally, consumers need to be aware of the dangers of improperly disposing of LiBs. Some people don’t realize that a damaged battery can spark a fire, which is why throwing LiBs into household trash is not acceptable. 

Consumers can play a vital role in LiB recycling by shopping with care. Choose brands that provide free take-back recycling programs. Instead of finding a facility or drop-off center, you print out a postage-paid shipping label and mail your device back to the manufacturer. 

ERI’s Goal Is to Make It Easy to Recycle and Protect the Environment

ERI is doing everything it can to make e-waste recycling as simple and effective as possible for businesses and individuals. While you can’t recycle electronic devices and batteries in curbside containers, you can bring devices like laptops, phones, and tablets to retailers like Best Buy or Staples. 

ERI also offers electronic recycling boxes that you can purchase that cover the cost of secure shipping and processing at one of our area e-waste recycling facilities. Businesses can talk to our LiB recycling experts about battery recycling options.

When you partner with ERI for your e-waste recycling needs, you’re assured that nothing is sent out of the country, and we take every possible step to keep our workers, U.S. residents, and the planet safe. It’s our goal to be a big part of a circular economy and sustainable future.