Battery Recycling 2023: Challenges and The Path Forward

Batteries are crucial in our energy transition, and demand for batteries is straining supply for raw minerals. Battery recycling is becoming more and more critical, but global recylcing rate has been uneven. Why is recycling batteries so important, and what is holding countries back from recycling more?

Written by 
Andrew Hagan
Edited by 
Victoria Chen-Englert
Updated on 
April 3, 2024
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1. Introduction

In an era where demand for electronic devices and renewable energy is greater than ever, batteries have become paramount. Besides powering our phones, laptops, and electric vehicles, batteries are crucial for overcoming the intermittency of sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar. However, this shift brings its own set of difficulties in the realm of battery recycling. As we venture deeper into our green transition, understanding the current challenges and future prospects of battery recycling is crucial for those involved in renewable energy and decarbonization efforts.

2. Why Is Battery Recycling Important?

a. Modern Technology Cannot Function Without Batteries

Our demand for batteries is skyrocketing, fueled by consumer electronics, the electric vehicle boom, and the global push for renewable energy storage solutions. Lithium-ion batteries in particular have emerged as the linchpin for many of these applications, alongside traditional technologies such as lead–acid batteries and emerging ones like sodium-ion and solid-state batteries. Despite the essential role of batteries in modern life, this burgeoning demand poses significant environmental challenges, notably in terms of waste management and resource depletion.

b. Global Demand for Key Minerals Is Straining Supply

According to the Volta Foundation's 2023 Battery Report, the annual global demand for lithium is forecast to increase more than fourfold in the next decade, from 57,000 metric tons in 2023 to 238,000 metric tons in 2033 (as lithium carbonate equivalent, a common industry metric). Similar increases are expected for cobalt, nickel, and graphite. Supplying this demand will obviously require either fresh materials to be mined or — ideally — better recovery and reuse of already-mined materials.

c. The High Environmental Costs of Mining Battery Minerals

The environmental imperative for recycling batteries cannot be overstated. Mining the raw materials for batteries — such as lithium, cobalt, and nickel — has significant environmental and ethical implications, including habitat destruction, water pollution, and labor rights violations in mining communities. Recycling batteries can help mitigate these impacts by reducing the demand for freshly mined materials.

d. The Hazards of Improper Battery Disposal

Furthermore, spent batteries pose a considerable environmental hazard if not disposed of properly. They can leach toxic chemicals into the ground and waterways, resulting in risks to human health and the environment. Thus, developing effective recycling methods is not only an issue of resource efficiency but also a critical environmental protection measure.

Without immediate improvements in battery recycling, these risks are only set to become more severe in the future. According to the Volta Foundation, approximately 110 GWh of battery scrap was generated in 2023, and this is projected to surge to 480 GWh by 2033 — a massive 2.4 million metric tons.

3. What Are the Challenges of Battery Recycling?

a. Diverse Battery Designs and Chemistries Make Recycling Difficult

Battery recycling still faces numerous formidable challenges. The complexity and diversity of battery designs make recycling difficult. Modern batteries contain a myriad of valuable elements like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, but these are intricately intertwined with other less valuable and sometimes hazardous materials. Furthermore, different types of battery chemistry — and indeed even nominally similar batteries from different manufacturers — rely on widely varying mixtures of chemical components. This complexity not only makes recycling labor-intensive and costly but also poses serious health and safety risks.

b. Recycling Infrastructure Is Lagging

Moreover, recycling infrastructure is lagging globally. Despite some recent efforts, many places around the world lack the facilities necessary to process the increasing volume of spent batteries safely and efficiently. This deficiency is partly attributable to the nascent stage of the sector and partly because of the economic equation — the cost of recycling often outweighs the value of the recovered materials.

In addition, the complex supply chain of battery recycling involves many steps, such as collecting the old batteries, shipping them to the recycler, dismantling the cells, and recovering the high-value materials and selling them on for reuse, as well as responsibly disposing of the hazardous waste streams generated along the way.

4. The Path Forward for Battery Recycling

a. Growing Investment and New Technologies

Despite these challenges, recent technological innovations and greater investment suggest that the future of battery recycling holds promise. Several startups and established companies are pioneering new recycling methods that promise higher material recovery rates, lower costs, and reduced environmental impact. These technologies include advanced mechanical and hydrometallurgical processes, as well as direct recycling techniques that preserve the structure of the battery materials.

b. Battery Recycling Expected to be More Economically Viable

Battery recycling is expected to become more economically favorable as raw materials become scarcer and battery waste becomes more abundant. According to, the global battery recycling market had an estimated value of $11.9 billion in 2023 and is set to almost double to $23.7 billion by 2032. Meanwhile, the Volta Foundation predicts that the recycling market will grow substantially when the first wave of electric vehicles start reaching their end of life in 2030.

c. Stricter Regulations Will Be Crucial

Stricter regulations will be a crucial part of this, however, and in this regard governments and industry leaders are also recognizing the importance of battery recycling. Asia is reportedly leading the way, with South Korea and China already having achieved battery recycling rates on the order of 90%. In 2023, the European Union updated its 2006 Battery Directive to target a recycling efficiency of 70% by 2031, alongside further goals for material recovery and recycled material use.

The new Batteries Regulation 2023 also sets out to introduce battery passports for larger batteries by 2027 and ultimately develop the foundation for a closed-loop battery value chain in Europe. By contrast, the United States still has no legislation in place to promote battery recycling or improve recovery rates. However, some efforts to improve this situation are underway, such as the Department of Energy's Lithium-Ion Recycling Prize and the non-profit scheme Call2Recycle.    

5. Key Developments in Battery Recycling in 2023

Last year, the battery sector saw significant developments as companies worldwide forged partnerships and broadened their capabilities to address the growing need for sustainable battery end-of-life management.

a. Redwood Materials and Volkwagen expanded cooperation

In April, Redwood Materials and Volkswagen expanded their cooperation to include the collection of end-of-life batteries from consumer electronics, marking a pivotal moment in integrating automotive and electronic waste streams. This momentum continued into May when Glencore and Li-Cycle announced plans to construct the largest battery recycling plant in Europe, with an annual target of 50,000–70,000 metric tons of black mass — the valuable metal- and graphite-rich material obtained after initial processing of shredded batteries.

b. RecycLiCo and Zenith Chemical joint venture for lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Taiwan

Progress continued in June, when RecycLiCo and Zenith Chemical unveiled a $25 million joint venture to build a lithium-ion battery recycling facility in Taiwan. This was closely followed in July by Li-Cycle and EVE Energy signing a memorandum of understanding to explore opportunities for lithium-ion battery recycling. August saw another joint venture between LG Energy Solution and Zhejiang Huayou Recycling Technology to establish two recycling plants in China, followed in September by SK Ecoplant and Ascend Elements announcing their own joint venture to construct a $66 million recycling facility in Kentucky capable of processing 12,000 metric tons per annum of black mass.

c. Nth Cycle series B financing, UAE's 1st battery recycling plant, and more

The end of the year brought additional milestones. December saw Nth Cycle secure $44 million in Series B financing to scale up its metal recycling operations, the United Arab Emirates announced its first battery recycling plant, and VinFast and Marubeni agreed to work together to recycle used electric vehicle batteries. These developments underscored a year of rapid progress and strategic collaboration, setting the stage for an even more robust global battery recycling ecosystem in the years to come.

6. Conclusion

The future of battery recycling is intrinsically linked to the evolution of battery technology itself. As researchers develop batteries with higher energy densities, longer life spans, and less toxic materials, the recycling process will inherently become more straightforward and economically viable.

However, achieving a sustainable battery lifecycle requires concerted efforts across multiple fronts. Governments need to implement robust regulatory frameworks that incentivize recycling and hold manufacturers accountable for the end-of-life management of their products. At the same time, the industry must invest in recycling technologies and infrastructure to keep pace with the growing volume of spent batteries.

Moreover, there's a crucial role for innovation in designing batteries with recycling in mind. This design-for-recycling approach would ensure that batteries are easier to disassemble and the materials easier to recover, significantly streamlining the recycling process.

Despite the current challenges, the combined efforts of technological innovation, investment, and regulatory support can pave the way for a future where batteries power our world without contributing to its degradation. The evolution of battery recycling is not just an opportunity — it is a responsibility. Our transition to renewable energy should be sustainable not only in terms of carbon emissions but also in how we manage the lifecycles of the technologies that enable this transition.

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