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Redefining sustainability: Creating a circular economy for batteries

From the catastrophic Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil claiming nearly 300 lives to the desecration of sacred Aboriginal sites at Juukan Gorge in Australia, the global mining industry is leaving a trail of devastation. Conflict, pollution, displacement, corruption, and fatal disasters plague communities and ecosystems worldwide. Amidst rising demand for metals essential in electric vehicle batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, the pressure to expand mining operations intensifies.

The urgent shift towards clean energy is crucial to mitigate climate change’s worst impacts. However, we must avoid repeating past mistakes. Transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy cannot rely on unsustainable mining practices. Instead, alongside responsible mining with informed community consent, we must prioritize a circular metals economy emphasizing recycling, reuse,and reducing demand. The goal is to minimize new mining wherever possible.

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Recent research conducted by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures (UTS-ISF), in collaboration with US-based NGO Earthworks, underscores this possibility. Their findings suggest optimizing battery metal recovery could slash demand for copper, lithium, cobalt, and nickel in the EV battery supply chain by 25-55% over the next two decades. Technological advancements indicate recovery rates above 90% are feasible for all these metals as battery technology continues to evolve, reducing raw material requirements per kWh of an EV battery.

However, the current economic incentives and policy frameworks fall short in promoting optimal recycling of battery metals. For instance, the research highlights that only approximately 12% of lithium is currently recovered from end-of-life lithium-ion batteries.

The European Union has taken significant strides in addressing these challenges. In December 2020, the European Commission proposed a comprehensive regulatory framework covering the entire lifecycle of batteries. Spanning 79 articles, the proposal mandates due diligence in mineral sourcing, carbon footprint accounting, and encompasses the battery value chain from extraction to recycling and reuse.

Yet, to mitigate the adverse impacts of these critical supply chains effectively, progressive policies must go further. The UTS-ISF research underscores the need for more ambitious targets for lithium recovery from waste batteries. Proposed targets of 35% by 2026 and 70% by 2030 should be elevated to at least 70% by 2026 and 90% by 2030, reflecting the capabilities of current and emerging recycling technologies.

Moreover, the proposed regulations should incorporate rigorous environmental and human rights standards for mining operations. Independent third-party oversight, aligned with initiatives like the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance, is essential to ensure compliance.

Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based NGO, has published a position paper outlining these gaps and proposing concrete solutions to strengthen EU regulations. Their efforts aim to facilitate the production of truly green, ‘made in Europe’ batteries, ensuring benefits extend to mining-affected communities, workers, and ecosystems globally.

Every step towards reducing the demand for newly mined metals directly benefits people and ecosystems worldwide. As we confront the climate crisis, it is imperative to transition away from unsustainable mining practices. Europe’s policymakers have a pivotal opportunity to establish a genuinely circular battery value chain that prioritizes sustainability and resilience.

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