Home Environment We Don't Need No Damn Plans For This Battery Recycling

We Don’t Need No Damn Plans For This Battery Recycling

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Please, Lord, preserve us from those who would plan everything. Yes, OK, we’ll be proper about this, something do need planning as the state is the only actor we’re willing to use for some things. We tried freelance militaries and we didn’t like the Wars of the Roses. So, some things are going to be done by government and that means planning, bureaucracies, politicians, the wasting of oceans of cash and all that goes with avoiding the nastiness of not doing it that way.

But having agreed that there are some things best planned we also need to accept that there are things best left unplanned. Where just simple market incentives will do the job for us. Even, things which if market incentives don’t do them then the things should not be done. For example, the recycling of EV batteries:

Electric car batteries are being sent to Europe for recycling, a study has found, amid expert warnings that Britain is not ready for the electric vehicle revolution.

The UK urgently needs to establish its own battery recycling facilities to avoid paying to ship batteries to Europe and losing out on a multi-million pound industry as it makes the transition to electric vehicles, experts have warned.

So, why are batteries being sent to Europe? Because there’s not sufficient volume of them, as yet, to make a UK factory efficient. It costs money to build a plant. Any plant has an efficient size of operation. If there’s not enough work, throughput, to make a plant profitable then don’t have a plant.

This is something that should be obvious about recycling. Take, say, plastic bottles. Assume recycling, just for the giggles of the point, rather than burning or whatever. So, should each household now have the machine to shred them, turn them into acrylic style fibres, make fleeces and then use them to keep out the cold we’re suffering by not using fossil fuels?

Well, no. Each household collects them up and then sends them off to a plant specialised in doing this. Each plant needs to be collecting from x number of households – or towns, perhaps counties – in order to be of efficient size. To gain enough throughput to make it worth having a shredder, spinner, fleece maker, even a Primark to sell the stuff.

Size matters that is.

There are times that it’s not worth having one in a specific country at all. I wouldn’t swear to this but I think it’s likely that there is no germanium – another metal – recycling plant in the UK. Actually, I only know of two in the entire Atlantic economies, one in New Jersey and one in Belgium. This is just how the efficiency of the division and specialisation of the industry works out. From memory, there are only two plants in the entirety of Europe that can recycle catalytic converters.

We actively do not want to have EV battery recycling now. Sure, perhaps at some point we will do if volume increases:

Any old EV batteries must instead be stored in the UK and then shipped to recycling facilities in Europe, including Germany, Belgium and Finland.

That is currently efficient so let’s continue to do that until it isn’t.

Up to 75 per cent of the cost of recycling the batteries can go on transportation, according to a study from the University of Warwick.

And that, mateys, is bollocks. Bollocks when applied as it is here, to try to mean that 75% of the cost is sending the batteries to Europe. This is why:

By 2040, there are expected to be 339,000 tonnes of EV batteries reaching the end of their life annually, according to the University of Warwick, with an average value of £3.3 per kg.

They’re lying there too. The £3.30 per kg is the value of the lithium once processed out of the battery. Not the value of the lithium in the battery unprocessed. But OK, let’s overlook that little lie – and ignore the stupidity of trying to forecast a mineral price two decades out.

Think of transport costs for a moment. EV batteries, lithium itself, are heavier than water. Thus we use weight in packing a container, not volume (that’s how volume/weight calculations work. A 40 ft container can take 36 tonnes of volume weight. You can’t get 36 tonnes of feathers in there nor 63 cubic metres of lead. Well, you can the second but not then get it on a lorry.). Cool, so, we can get 36,000 kg of EV battery at £3.30 a kg into the one container. Transport costs to Europe are perhaps £3,000 per container (yes, because it’s the packing and unpacking that costs, the distance travelled is near irrelevant). Our transport costs are 8 pence a kg.

As I say, bollocks.

What they are using as their transport figure is the cost of collecting batteries from wherever to get to any one single plant, wherever. This being one of the big costs of any recycling process. We’ve one EV battery in Cardiff today, two in Newport, one in Bristol, five in Bath (posh, rich gits there) and we need to get them all to our factory in Warminster. That’s what costs the money, not shipping a full load from Warminster to Rotterdam.

That is, sure transport costs. But it’s the collection, not the movement to the factory in volume.

But let’s ignore all of that and move on to incentives. They’re saying that each 400 kg battery is worth – or contains at least – £3.30 per kg in value. The pikeys are known for leaving £1,320 in value in the corner of a field are they? And yes, that raw end of the scrap business is still so dominated, it’s not all sheepskin car coats and brown trilbys you know.

So, we know that, if the value number is correct, EV batteries will be collected. As and when it makes economic sense to process them in the UK then that will be done – the capitalist lust for profits will see to that. We know this is correct because people are already slicing the catalytic converters off cars for a tenth of that value and believe me, processing mixed platinum groups metals is a hell of a lot more complex than lithium batteries.

And then there’s the final attempt at stupidity:

“There will be so much recyclable material that it won’t be safe to stockpile in the UK and then export to Europe,” Mr Gifford said.

“Plus, with the amount of EVs that are likely to be sold, it’s pretty crucial for the supply of raw materials that we don’t wholly depend on imports.”

We’re going to be mining lithium in the UK are we? Making lithium batteries in the UK? You know, like we mine for platinum to make catalytic converters? Mine our own uranium for nuclear reactors?

Idiocy.

But there are people pushing it, the Faraday Institute. At which point we really have to remind ourselves of something. As the late Christopher Booker spent to much time pointing out, the UK used to have a private sector, purely moolah incentivised, lead acid battery recycling system. Worked rather well. Then government decided to get involved and make it better. The necessary bureaucracy of having government involved destroyed the economics and the recycling rate for lead acid batteries fell. Significantly.

Yes, it is entirely true that some things are better done by government and planning. Recycling ain’t one of them. Bugger off.

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Transport costs to Europe are perhaps £3,000 per container (yes, because it’s the packing and unpacking that costs, the distance travelled is near irrelevant).

    When I had cause to check a few years ago, the price for sending a container to China was only ~£80. (I suspect that was TEU, but can’t remember now – anyway, a great deal cheaper.) The reason being that there are millions of full containers travelling from China to the rest of the world, and mostly empties going back to be refilled.

  2. I was reading an article recently about a discovery that you don’t need to fully break down the electrolyte in LiFePO batteries to recycle it. Just heat treat it and it’s ready to go again. Cue much rapturing about how wonderful this would be in reducing recycling costs. How to get this electrolyte out of the batteries was not concidered. This is probably the highest cost item as it involves considerable touch labor. Maybe designing the batteries for recycling would help, but we are definitely not anywhere near that yet.

  3. In dear old Oz we used to send our garbage to China for recycling. They’ve now decided they don’t want this. This seems to bother some people, although I feel the burn, bash and bury process I learned in the Scouts so many, many years ago is still perfectly practicable.

    If someone else is prepared to take your junk off your hands, I’d say ‘Let ’em have it.’ They’ll get sick and tired of having it dumped on them soon enough.

  4. So, smart guys identify a big problem/opportunity. Why don’t they build the business to solve it/capitalize on it? Seems like they should be keeping quiet about this while they position themselves to be the next big thing, getting rich and making the world better.

  5. “We’re going to be mining lithium in the UK are we? Making lithium batteries in the UK? You know, like we mine for platinum to make catalytic converters? Mine our own uranium for nuclear reactors? “

    They’re looking at it in Cornwall. Pretty seriously as it’s a huge natural deposit. That interestingly also buggers up a lot of the rest of your argument.

    The transport issue is actually a red herring – The battery recycling industries in Finland, Germany and Belgium have collection costs as well, and it is an a scale that is different to the UK in several ways. How do Finland, sparsely populated with just a few million people, Germany, more densely populated with around 80 million people, and Belgium, less heavily populated yet with a higher density than either, all have viable battery recycling industries? They probably have completely different collection costs to each other. Seems rather arbitrary, almost as though they are attempting to specialise in it, which we should be doing as well. They are probably predicating their plans around importing it from other countries, and their respective governments are subsidising the fuck out of it (“Launch aid” anyone?) in the hope that other countries have nothing to do with the sector.

    The bottom fell out of the lead acid battery recycling sector because of environmental legislation – We got rid of Lead in petrol, we got rid of it in paint and even the Church of England is lobbying for an exemption to architectural preservation laws to replace it with GFRP. It only gets stolen because car batteries are the major use for it, if the car industry went over to an alternative chemistry the market for it would disappear entirely. Given how toxic it is, surely that’s good isn’t it?

      • It looks like it’s all over the place. It would be instructive to know who is doing the trading and whether any of those trades actually translate into industries then making use of the material, say Russian aerospace using it in Aluminium alloys. As you’ve said yourself you speculate upon the Scandium market, but you don’t run a business that you use it in, and how many people who buy it off you do so for an actual physical purpose?

        • Correction – Got ahead of my own argument there – The Russians don’t use lead in aerospace – Although if you’ve flown on a Tupolev you’d be forgiven for assuming it. They do use Scandium in aerospace, which is my point that they do have an actual physical use for the material, not just a trade.

        • From $700 to $2,000 over the decades is all over the place?

          Also, I’ve never said I speculate in Sc. Rather, I was a wholesaler. There is no speculative market. The only time I handled the stuff is when it was actually going to someone who was going to use it for something. Say, Airbus to build a wing out of…..

          • Planning upon buying up, and selling something on to a different person having done nothing to the underlying asset yourself is arguably an exercise in “speculation,” especially if you do it multiple times, isn’t it?

            You’ve got to find A Thing, have the money to buy it, hold on to it until someone wants it and make a profit over and above what you bought it for, factoring in the time pressure that exists upon the value of your money. Metals are a good thing to speculate upon in this way, because the demand for them changes but they never do.

            Something about that graph is way off. It strikes me as a bad example.
            The “decades” you describe are practically irrelevant, it’s just the five years between 2005 to 2010 that matter. If you been cheeky you could have sold in late 2007 and made out like an absolute bandit. If you kept your nerve when it crashed back to it’s pre-spike value you could have bought low and then have made out again. After that the market for it just oscillates upwards and downwards like King Kong’s ECG. The price clearly bears no relation to anything fundamental in reality.

            We are categorically using less lead in the environment. Even the Chinese don’t want the stuff.

          • “Planning upon buying up, and selling something on to a different person having done nothing to the underlying asset yourself is arguably an exercise in “speculation,” especially if you do it multiple times, isn’t it?

            You’ve got to find A Thing, have the money to buy it, hold on to it until someone wants it and make a profit over and above what you bought it for, factoring in the time pressure that exists upon the value of your money. ”

            Please show that I held stock.

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