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When Tesla Says It Recycles 100% of Its Batteries, What Does That Mean?

Battery recycling is notoriously expensive, inefficient, and dangerous. Getting better at it is crucial to making sure electric cars are cleaner.

Tesla is claiming it’s mastered one of the most notorious environmental challenges in electric vehicle manufacturing: Recycling its lithium-ion batteries. 

In its 2020 impact report, published Wednesday, the electric vehicle giant described its adoption of a “closed-loop” process that would allow it to keep 100 percent of its batteries, which typically last around a decade, out of the landfill: “None of our scrapped lithium-ion batteries go to landfills and 100 percent are recycled,” the report reads. “We actively implement circular economy principles.” 

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This claim was quickly recirculated by tech and electric vehicle blogs, which lauded the company for this feat.

Notably, Tesla's environmental report says that 100 percent of batteries are recycled in some way, but it does not say 100 percent of each battery is recycled. Tesla says its ultimate goal is "high recovery rates, low costs, and low environmental impact" from its recycling program; it does not say how far along that path it is right now. 

“When Tesla says that they're recycling 100% of their batteries, it means that they are sending the batteries off to someone who's recycling them, recovering the material, and then who knows where that material is going,” Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, told Motherboard. 

“Elon has said for years, ‘Oh yeah, we're gonna take old Teslas out of one side of the factory and bring new Teslas out of the other side," he added. "That's always the dream.”

Scientists and environmentalists have said they’re worried about having electric car batteries wind up in landfills in large numbers if we don't get better at recycling, remanufacturing, and reusing them. 

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Currently, recycling lithium-ion batteries (and electronics recycling in general) is a difficult process, and much of the material is downcycled, meaning that material recycled from electronics doesn't necessarily go back into electronics and becomes something less complex. The main ingredient in most batteries, lithium, is a conductor, responsible for creating the electrical current that generates energy that powers devices. But exactly what gives it its power is what makes it so difficult to extract; with one extra electron in its outer atomic shell, it’s constantly glomming onto other elements, making it messy to separate out from the other ingredients in batteries, like nickel, cobalt, and aluminum.

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There are a few common lithium-ion battery recycling techniques on the market today: pyrometallurgy (heating and melting parts down until they separate), hydrometallurgy (soaking a battery in an acid until its parts separate), and direct recycling (shredding batteries and separating its parts out physically). Researchers at the Reuse and Recycling of Lithium Ion Batteries (ReLib) lab in the UK have also recently developed a method of separation using ultrasounds.

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All of these tactics are doable but expensive at the scale required to recycle an entire EV battery (which can weigh over 1,000 pounds), and historically, it’s been cheaper to mine for new lithium than it is to recycle and reuse it. 

For Tesla to have mastered lithium-ion recycling would mean the company is drastically reducing its carbon footprint and, perhaps, start to reduce the mining needed to make electric cars and other electronic batteries. By creating a closed-loop process for reusing the materials that go into its cars, the company would ensure it only ever has to extract a finite amount of lithium from the earth, which can be recycled ad finitum, reducing its reliance on mines that occupy large swaths of land, use large volumes of water, and may come with yet-unknown health impacts.

The company’s claims convey an image of a totally tightly-controlled in-house recycling system, in which old Tesla batteries are used to make new Tesla batteries. But experts in lithium-ion battery recycling told Motherboard the reality isn’t that simple. 

The company’s latest environmental marketing materials claim that it began developing an in-house recycling center by its Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, in late 2020 for processing end-of-life batteries as a supplement to existing third-party contracts. 

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Currently, a company called Redwood Materials, headed up by former Tesla CTO JB Straubel, recently announced plans to build a 100-acre recycling facility near the Gigafactory. 

“I think when they talk about doing it on-site, this is what they're referring to,” he said. (He says that the company is one of few leaders in the battery recycling space that’s committed to speeding up the recycling process and advancing the market as a whole.)

“Onsite recycling brings us one step closer to closing the loop on materials generation,” Tesla's environmental impact report reads. “We intend to tailor recycling solutions to each location and thereby re-introduce valuable materials back into our manufacturing process.”  

Any degree of recycling is better than landfilling their batteries, to be sure, says Wiens. As a conductor, lithium is unstable in uncontrolled environments, and can cause landfill fires that emit toxic gases into the atmosphere. Lithium ion batteries are currently the bane of electronics recyclers everywhere—often, batteries are glued into computers, phones, fitness trackers, and other gadgets. In order to be recycled safely, those batteries need to be removed before they are processed through an electronics shredder because, if shredded, lithium ion batteries explode. Lithium-ion battery fires cause dozens of fires in recycling centers every year; Waste360 has called the batteries a "growing, global problem."

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Working with third-party recyclers also means Tesla likely doesn’t retain much control over what happens to the minerals in their batteries once they’re sent to a recycler. Its environmental impact report also does not claim the company is making batteries out of recycled minerals yet. 

Wiens adds that no modern battery is 100 percent recyclable; a dearth of non-recyclable materials like adhesives and sealants are worked into every one (around five pounds in a single EV battery, depending on make and model.) 

And while innovation in the battery recycling industry is happening, it will take ample research and development to reach a point where 100% recyclability is the norm, he says. The market is still young, and scaling up recycling processes isn’t economically viable for many producers yet. Changing this will take money and time.

“The price of lithium has been low enough that it hasn't really justified some of these chemical metallurgical processes to recover the material,” he says.  

Dr. Andrew Abbott, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Leicester and a researcher in battery cell separation at ReLib, believes one day, recycling will be lucrative for manufacturers.

“There are a lot of processes which are coming through at the moment sort of aiming toward where are we going to be in 10, 15 years, looking toward a time when, rather than shredding the cells, we can disassemble the cells, and sort of pull the two components apart,” Abbott said. “Electrification is definitely coming, and it's coming soon. But I think, also, it is making people understand that recycling is gearing up for this increase.” 

An April report by Earthworks found that battery recycling could cut down on the amount of new mineral mining needed across the industry by 25 percent for lithium, 35 percent for cobalt and nickel and 55 percent for copper by 2040. This is crucial, because mining is generally very environmentally taxing, and, in the case of cobalt, much of the global supply comes from regions where child mining labor is still widely usedThere could be a day where recycling centers replace mines entirely—we’re just not there yet.

“It just needs a technological revolution,” Wiens added. “Just like we're going through a manufacturing revolution and making these lithium batteries right now, we need the same thing for recycling.”