Will Old Electric-Car Battery Packs Cause Horrible Pollution?

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Cars Crushed Into Cubes

Cars Crushed Into Cubes

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It's an assertion that comes up a lot in comments on our stories.

It goes, essentially, like this: No one recognizes the horrible pollution problems that will arrive when hybrid and electric cars are junked, and their nickel-metal-hydride and lithium-ion battery packs go into landfills.

It's a worthwhile concern. But that's just not going to happen, for two reasons:

(1) Automakers are well aware of the concern, and they already have programs set up.

They're eager to reclaim and dispose of wrecked or defective battery packs from hybrids. Electric-car makers are doing the same.

You may not know it, in fact, but the old-fashioned lead-acid starter battery is probably the most-recycled consumer good in the world. Close to 99 percent of them (p. 9) of lead-acid batteries are now turned in for recycling.

In part, that reflects decades of effort, because lead is a highly toxic substance that's harmful to humans.

Lithium, on the other hand, is an inert and non-toxic substance--although lithium-ion batteries, to be fair, do contain some metals as well.

(2) Used hybrid and electric-car battery packs will be worth more than their scrap value.

In the case of nickel-metal-hydride packs, they contain a number of valuable metals. While we don't know the economics of tearing down an old hybrid pack, the commodity price of those metals is likely to give the pack a scrap value notably higher than zero--just as the precious metals in catalytic converters give them value.

Lithium-ion battery pack installation in 2012 Ford Focus Electric at Wayne Assembly Plant

Lithium-ion battery pack installation in 2012 Ford Focus Electric at Wayne Assembly Plant

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And for all packs, the remaining energy content will probably give them a secondary life as energy storage in new, stationary applications.

We like the idea, for example, of pairing an old plug-in vehicle battery with a photovoltaic solar panel to provide a way for buildings not only to capture renewable energy but to store it for later use.


GM will take back lithium-ion battery packs from the Chevy Volt and be responsible for the recycling or any potential secondary use for the battery pack.

"We can't just landfill them," said GM's Roger Clark. "The responsible thing to do is to take them back and that's why GM is doing it."

In the end, the answer to the headline question is, "No, by and large, electric-car battery packs won't cause a new pollution problem."

The idea that pricey battery packs will end up in landfills or tossed over cliffs isn't realistic. Every automaker has plans in place for recycling old or damaged battery packs.

But we don't blame anyone for asking.


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Comments (10)
  1. Absolutely agree. But we will always have to watch the mining operations as well to make sure we are not ruining the environment before the battery even makes it in to the car.

  2. That is a problem. Here in the US, the mining industry is very well monitored and regulated. They are point sources, and that makes them relatively easy to keep clean. However, other countries set their own rule and choose how they are going to enforce them, and conscience consumers will never know for sure how well they are taken care of. Not even the manufacturers themselves can know for sure whether this lithium was mined fairly or not. Materials are sourced from all over the world, and there is no way to know where this bar of lithium came from.

  3. I agree, especially with #2. People forget that even when the battery is no longer useful to vehicular travel, it's still very useful for many other purposes. As you said, the resale value on an EV battery will be much higher than it's scrap value.

  4. ps. Even if we did just scrap them, they have many valuable raw materials that could be reclaimed. Landfilling one of these would be foolish indeed.

  5. I agree that the "scrap value" of the spent batteries should keep them from going directly to a land fill. However, there does need to be concern over any remaining toxic waste. Should be easy to to control the recyclers though.

  6. This is one of those issues that people who are against EVs try to point out in an attempt discredit EVs. These same people are the ones who would point out dirty coal produced electricity as if they really cared. Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear likes to point out where the Prius's parts are shipped from in an effort to show that the Prius isn't clean, even though he has stated he thinks going green is stupid he suddenly sights an environmental issue as if it really mattered to him. Battery recycling is just one on a list of many aspects that is surrounded in myth simply because it's something that a majority of consumers haven't yet experienced, so continual education of these aspects will be needed until EVs are fully mainstream.

  7. Electric cars will be far better recycling wise than ICE cars. Once the battery is removed, an EV should weigh less than an ICE car due to lack of plumbing and emissions controls (exhaust, ICE, gas tank and so on). Less Iron mined for ICE vehicle engines is another good thing - replaced, of course, by the mining of copper and other stuff for the electric motor (which is lighter than an ICE engine). All in all, EVs should be greener than ICE in their final days especially if the battery is re-tasked for grid storage.

  8. Oh - and who landfill's cars anyway? Scrap-heap cars end up at iron mills where they are melted down for metals reuse. I live near an iron mill and there are 40-50' high mountains of old cars there post-crush and ready for melting.

  9. The NiMH battery in Toyota hybrids like the Prius are completely recyclable.

    In fact, Toyota will pay you a $200 bounty to return one of those batteries for recycling. Just call the number on the battery pack.

  10. I think you missed a step.

    When EV batteries are "used up" they will still have about 80% of their original capacity.

    Utility companies are already looking at used EV batteries for grid storage. Since the batteries will be installed in stationary racks it won't matter as much that their kW/kilogram ratio isn't optimal like it is in EVs.

    Additionally, Toyota already has an EV/hybrid recycling process. The first batteries they will process will be from the Prius. But I'm seeing reports of Prius-es going 300k on their original battery.

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