The European recycling industry, backed by environmental groups, has asked Brussels to ban the export of metals recovered from used electric car batteries to promote recycling in Europe and reduce dependence on imported raw materials.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to boost the recycling of “Strategic Raw Materials” in the bloc’s waste to reduce reliance on imports from countries like China.
The goals were part of the Parliament’s position on the proposed Critical Raw Materials Act, which introduces aspirational targets for the extraction, processing and recycling of key minerals in the EU.
Parliament also added new provisions to improve the recycling of metals extracted from used electric car batteries, mandating the European Commission to develop “dedicated waste codes for lithium-ion batteries and intermediate waste streams (‘black mass’).”
This would allow Brussels to classify ‘black mass’ as hazardous waste, restrict its export outside Europe and ultimately keep the precious materials inside the EU’s borders – a move supported by environmentalists.
“When a battery is shredded and turned into so-called ‘black mass’, it is often quickly bought by the Koreans or the Chinese as processes there are already mature and energy costs lower,” said Julia Poliscanova, director for electric vehicles and e-mobility at Transport & Environment (T&E), a clean mobility NGO.
This means “access to the feedstock can be an issue” for European recyclers, she told Euractiv.
“To address this, Europe would need to restrict the export of ‘Black mass’ outside the EU,” she said.
Moves to restrict the export of ‘black mass’ are supported by the European Recycling Industries Confederation (EuRIC), a trade organisation.
“Black mass should normally be classified as a hazardous waste to ensure proper treatment within the EU and beyond,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary general of EuRIC.
If exported outside Europe, ‘black mass’ should at the very least “be treated under conditions equivalent to the ones set in EU legislation,” he told Euractiv.
Lithium-ion batteries contain precious metals such as lithium, copper, manganese, cobalt, and nickel, which are on the EU’s list of critical raw materials.
Ramping up Europe’s domestic recycling capacity
Keeping ‘black mass’ in Europe also makes sense for Eurobat, the European battery industry association, which says it would help achieve the EU’s recycling goals and further the bloc’s “strategic autonomy”.
However, Eurobat warns that efforts would be in vain if the EU does not simultaneously ramp up its domestic recycling capacity.
“Eurobat is therefore calling for investments also to be channelled to critical segments of the battery value chain, including processing and recycling of battery materials,” said Pau Sanchis, senior policy manager at Eurobat.
European recyclers currently lack the industrial capacity to recycle critical raw materials at scale – mainly because it is “way cheaper” to import them from abroad, EuRIC says.
To reverse this, additional incentives are needed to level the playing field, Katrakis told Euractiv.
“This is typically what the Battery Regulation does for metals found in batteries by pulling the demand for CRMs through recycled content targets. Such targets are key investment drivers in the EU, and at the same time help protect climate and the environment.”
The economic feasibility of retrieving raw materials from used car batteries also varies depending on the materials, with some costing more than others to recycle.
“Depending on the raw material, the challenge, of course, will be different,” says Eurobat’s Pau Sanchis. “It will depend on the state of the market for each raw material – for example, whether they can be obtained cheaply or not on the London Metals Exchange, and whether the EU has established privileged trade partnerships with supplier countries or not.”
T&E’s Julia Poliscanova acknowledges that recycling can be more or less challenging depending on the materials. But she says the increased focus on sorting, collection and processing in Europe will send a positive signal to EU recyclers, regardless of the material concerned.
“Whether they’re recovered from electronics or car batteries, recyclers will need to be prepared and have the capacity ready to recycle these materials. So it shouldn’t be an excuse not to do it.”
As the EU finalises its Critical Raw Materials Act, attention is now turning to the European Commission, which could restrict the export of ‘black mass’ by classifying it as hazardous waste.
“The way to do this is by amending EU waste codes,” says Poliscanova.
EU waste codes were last updated almost a decade ago, and the European Commission is working on an update, but no progress has been made.
“With the elections coming up, it’s unlikely that they will do anything next year,” Poliscanova said. “There is no reason why they can’t amend those waste codes still in 2023 in the coming months”.