Recycling lithium ion batteries: this is what electromobility manufacturers and dealers need to know!
- Only very few e-bike batteries are recycled
- The legal situation regarding the recycling of lithium ion batteries in Germany
- The obligations for dealers of e-bikes and e-scooters
- Recycling used batteries: legal obligations for consumers
- Disposal of e-scooter lithium ion batteries
- Will the future authorisation of battery-operated small vehicles be dependent on their having replaceable batteries?
Electromobility is on the up and up – and that particularly applies to e-bikes (pedelecs) and e-scooters. The high demand for e-bikes drove sales to record heights in 2020, and that despite the coronavirus pandemic. Now, according to Statista, more than seven million people over 14 years of age live in a household with a pedelec, while more than 4 million of the vehicles have taken to German streets since 2018. That means there must be at least as many batteries. The “Electric Empire” Federal Association for Small Electric Vehicles stated in 2019 that, according to “conservative estimates”, there were already 200,000 to 250,000 e-scooters and similar vehicles (e.g. hoverboards, segways) on the road in Germany; their batteries must therefore also be added to the total.
Lithium ion batteries must at some point be recycled in order to re-extract the valuable lithium, electrolytes, cobalt, nickel and manganese they contain. Because these materials can be used in other batteries, their recycling will play an ever greater role in the future. Because obtaining them as raw materials is just as expensive and energy-intensive as the battery production process itself. It is thus in the public interest to send batteries for collection and recycling. The European Battery Directive (2006/66/EC) prescribes the recycling of at least 50 % of the material of “industrial” batteries. To this end, new measures were adopted in 2020 at Member State level to implement these requirements.
Only very few e-bike batteries are recycled
A query by Green Party (die Grünen) Bundestag member Bettina Hoffmann sent to the Federal Environment Ministry revealed that only 3.6 percent of used e-bike batteries are recycled. At the same time, the number of e-bike batteries in circulation is constantly rising: in 2018 alone, a total weight of 3,152 tonnes of e-bike batteries came onto the market. This quantity has increased massively since then, the 2 million pedelecs sold in 2020 being double the number in the aforementioned year. But against the 3,152 tonnes of e-bike batteries brought into circulation in 2018, only 114 tonnes were recycled.
The legal situation regarding the recycling of lithium ion batteries in Germany
According to paragraph 8 of the Battery Act, dealers and manufacturers of e-bikes and e-bike batteries are obliged to accept returned industrial batteries free of charge if they offer them as part of their range. They can then send on the batteries to be recycled by waste disposal companies. This also applies to household stores and supermarkets that sell pedelecs. The distributing company (“Inverkehrbringer”) of electric vehicles is obliged under paragraphs 3 and 8 of the Battery Act to conclude contracts regarding the return and environmentally responsible recycling of used industrial batteries from electric bicycles. Currently, in Germany, there are around 140,000 retail locations accepting returns of device batteries. The consumer ought to be able to expect that every certified e-bike dealer is able to do so and allows returns.
The legal situation in Germany is clear in this regard: electric bicycles without type approval (all pedelecs and e-bikes with a maximum speed up to 25 km/h) are considered electrical devices. E-scooters without seats are also considered electrical devices and thus fundamentally fall into the category defined in the “Law on the Circulation, Return and Environmentally Sustainable Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment” (ElektroG), obliging distributing companies to apply to the EAR foundation registry before the first sale of any e-scooter.
The obligations for dealers of e-bikes and e-scooters
Put plainly, this means that the dealers of e-bikes and e-scooters have already fulfilled their registration and licensing obligations for the batteries installed in the vehicles via their manufacturers. This also applies in general to the manufacturers of well-known brands. However, it does not apply to importation and particularly to e-commerce, where it needs to be individually ensured by the dealer. It also does not cover the trade in replacement batteries. Used industrial batteries from electric bicycles and pedelecs are accepted free of charge by their distributors. For this reason, where the manufacture and shipment of replacement batteries is concerned, they must be separately registered and licensed under both the Battery Act and with regard to extended producer liability. Regarding e-scooter rental companies, it is the manufacturer’s duty to create reasonable return options and then dispose of the vehicles properly.
Recycling used batteries: legal obligations for consumers
Consumers are legally obliged not to dispose of used batteries – including button cells – in household waste, but to take them to an appropriate collection point (e.g. a used battery box in a retail outlet). Because of the risk of fire, they may under no circumstances be disposed of in household or bulk waste. Separating rubbish keeps hazardous substances out of household waste and prevents them entering the environment, while also ensuring valuable metals and materials are reused. Any used batteries collected are send exclusively for recycling. Valuable metals such as nickel, cobalt, lithium, manganese, copper, iron, aluminium and even silver can be extracted and used again as secondary raw materials.
Consumers can take batteries to selected municipal collection points such as recycling centres. It is here, however, that the problems begin. Used rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries come into different categories. Larger, high-energy lithium-ion batteries – from, say, e-bikes, pedelecs and e-scooters – are considered “industrial batteries”. There is no obligation on the municipality to accept such batteries. Thus it can happen that, while pedelecs can be disposed of at recycling centres, their batteries cannot.
By contrast, used batteries from electric tools, garden equipment and household devices such as robot vacuum cleaners are considered “portable batteries” and are thus accepted by portable battery distributors and many municipal recycling centres.
Disposal of e-scooter lithium ion batteries
The Federal Environment Agency cautions against returning used small electric vehicles, particularly e-scooters, to commercial waste collection companies, e.g. scrap metal collectors and dealers. These are not entitled to collect returned electrical equipment. Only if e-scooters are handed in to the correct collection and return points is their environmentally friendly treatment and recycling at certified primary treatment plants and recycling operations assured. For example, the primary treatment of used e-scooters involves the non-destructive removal of the remaining permanently installed lithium ion batteries that the consumer cannot extract, their collection, sorting and recycling.
Will the future authorisation of battery-operated small vehicles be dependent on their having replaceable batteries?
In addition, the German Bundesrat demanded in 2019 that e-scooters and other battery-operated small vehicles only be authorised in future if they are fitted with exchangeable batteries. As e-scooters often come with permanently fitted batteries, they frequently have to be disposed of completely if the battery is damaged. For this reason, small electric vehicles without exchangeable batteries should not receive approval in the future. As the Bundesrat emphasises, this is not only in the interest of consumers, but also promotes waste avoidance, recycling and resource and energy efficiency.