EV lithium battery recycling activities in Europe risk grinding to a halt within months, shaking investor confidence in the sector, if new waste classification rules come into force, Batteries International has learned.
Proposed EU regulations designating lithium black mass as hazardous waste — which could limit its storage before processing to just six months — could be in force by the summer.
However, industry insiders warn the move, coupled with existing bottlenecks disrupting shipments of used lithium batteries for processing between EU member states, could be a hammer blow for Europe’s fledgling recycling sector — depriving battery manufacturers of domestic supplies of raw materials.
The warning comes just weeks after trade associations urged EU leaders to scrap “cumbersome, lengthy and costly” processes holding back lithium battery recycling services and hampering competition.
Julia Poliscanova, senior director of vehicles and e-mobility for clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment, confirmed to Batteries International on January 15 that the European Commission is planning to designate black mass as hazardous.
Poliscanova said experts in the sector met to discuss the proposals last November and the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) is now compiling final recommendations.
“We expect the JRC’s report to come out in the first quarter of this year and to recommend designating black mass as hazardous,” Poliscanova said.
If the Commission accepts the recommendation, it has the power to immediately amend existing waste regulations.
Transport & Environment’s raw materials policy officer Franziska Grüning told Batteries International on January 17 that the smooth functioning of inter-EU waste transportation is key to enhancing the recycling industry and ultimately advancing the EU’s circular economy plans.
He warned that the hazardous waste classification could hinder the efficient collection of batteries as companies would be required to follow stricter requirements on declaration and notification.
However, he said the Commission could consider exemptions that would allow initial transports of lithium battery waste to be delivered to designated processing facilities.
Grüning said the Commission has already reviewed regulations on waste shipments and proposals on the table include using digital systems to keep track of such cargoes within the EU.
The European Battery Recycling Association (EBRA) says disruption in the materials supply chain is inevitable, “given the low number of existing battery recycling facilities across the EU, and the fact that there is often only one facility or sometimes no facility in a country”.
EBRA has called for battery manufacturing waste to be classified according to the battery’s chemistry.
As pressures on the sector increase, German chemicals giant BASF and Stena Recycling announced a new EV battery recycling partnership on January 9.
Stena said it will collect, assess, and pre-treat end-of-life batteries and battery production scrap to produce black mass at its facility in Halmstad, Sweden.
BASF will further process and refine the black mass at its battery recycling prototype metal refinery in Schwarzheide.
Asked about potential disruptions to lithium recycling in Europe, Stena’s product area manager for batteries, Marcus Martinsson, told Batteries International: “From an industrial point of view, we do not wish to store black mass longer than necessary, due to the general risk and raw material exposure.
“We therefore hope that a restriction in storage of black mass would be balanced with swift permit approval processes to allow for efficient transport of material across borders in Europe.”
The president of BASF’s catalysts division, Daniel Schönfelder, who is also responsible for the company’s battery materials and battery recycling business, said: “We believe that black mass exports to non-OECD countries should be banned.
“However, this is not yet the case across all Europe and we support the EU’s action to establish a Europe-wide binding regulation.”
On black mass, Schönfelder said storage was needed “to a certain extent” to support reliable material flows for production and refining.
“If regulation is too strict this can pose challenges to the production and in a worst case can lead to production shut downs if allowed storage limits are reached.”
Ecobat’s VP of global sales Elliott Ethridge said in an article posted on the group’s website on January 8: “If you’re in the recycling market, you’re playing the long game. You can’t be short-term.”
On challenges facing the sector in Europe, Ethridge warned: “If you can’t export the material, but you also don’t have the capacity to properly refine it, you create a bottleneck that you’ll have to deal with, and that might actually incentivize companies to reclassify the material and not report it correctly.”
According to a study published last month by Germany’s University of Münster, China will become self-sufficient in meeting its needs for key EV battery materials lithium, cobalt and nickel around 10 years before Europe and the US.
The study said China is expected to have the capacity to cater for its domestic demand for lithium from 2059 onwards — but this will not be the case in Europe and the US until after 2070.
Source: Batteries International