Electric vehicles make a lot of sense in the moment you drive them. Just plug in, wait four or five hours, then drive for a couple hundred miles for pennies.
But that ignores the cost of building the components of the car, especially the lithium-ion batteries, which are composed of minerals which are often mined in harsh, polluting circumstances.
And then there’s the other end of the cycle, when batteries from EV’s reach the end of their useful life. We’re on the cusp seeing EV batteries from Prii (the plural of Prius, according to Toyota) sold at the start of the decade hit the trash heap, and within a couple of years we’ll start to see batteries from Teslas sold in 2012 forward come in for replacement.
Today, there aren’t good options for recycling.
According to a new paper published in Nature, more than a million EVs were sold in 2017, which means by 2030 we’ll see a lot of batteries pile up. The paper points to several current methods of recycling, but each have significant drawbacks, including emitting pollutants and exposing workers to the risk of explosion.
We might be able to repurpose the batteries for another use, or even refurbish them. Both initiatives need more research.
At the moment, we’re stuck with heating them up to slag off the useful minerals left, and then find a place to dump toxic waste.
That’s a tough ending for something that’s supposed to move us closer to a clean climate.