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Post-consumer management of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries

Post-consumer management of end-of-life electric vehicle batteries

by Mark Winfield, Jonathan Myers and Sumeet Sooch

The Canadian federal government, as well as the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, has committed tens of billions of dollars to the development of electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing facilities and supply chains over the past two years. Substantial support is also being provided by the federal government and some provinces to subsidize EV purchases for Canadians and for the development of EV charging infrastructure. Regulatory proposals are also under consideration to mandate 100 percent zero-emission vehicle sales for light-duty vehicles by 2035.

EVs outperform conventional internal combustion engine vehicles by wide margins in terms of their direct emissions of GHGs and other pollutants, as well as energy efficiency. The electrification of road transportation, which produces 14 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, through the widespread adoption of EVs, is widely accepted as an essential component of effective decarbonization plans for these reasons.

However, when viewed on a lifecycle basis, the electrification of transportation through the replacement of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle fleets with EVs does raise a number of wider sustainability issues.

The key questions that arise in this context are:

  •  The need for increased electricity supplies to meet the additional demand flowing from the widespread adoption of EVs;
  • The impacts and risks associated with the material and supply chains needed for EV manufacturing, particularly the mining of ‘critical’ minerals for EV battery production.; and
  • The management and disposal of end-of-life (EoL) EV batteries. EV batteries are complex manufactured products that may contain, among other things, materials that are classified as “toxic” for the purposes of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) and other legislation.

The question of managing increased electricity demand due to the electrification of transportation is complex and important but fell outside of the scope of our immediate study.  The issue is being examined through a number of other studies being undertaken by governmentsutilities, non-governmental organizations, and the academic community.

Instead, our study focused on the second and third key issues in a sustainability context: the development of supply chains for EV batteries, including mineral resources; and the management of EoL EV batteries.

The Canadian federal government, and many provincial governments, are aggressively supporting the development of Canada’s ‘critical’ mineral resources for EV battery manufacturing. But there has been little action or discussion so far regarding what will happen when EV batteries reach their end of life. This is despite the potential connections between the two issues.

The significance of the question of the management of EoL EV batteries will grow as sales of EVs are expected to accelerate dramatically over the next decade. Each new EV sale will eventually result in an EoL battery that will need to be managed.

In addition to the need to prevent harm to the environment or human health from EoL EV battery disposal, materials recovered from EoL batteries could substantially reduce the need for the mining of new ‘critical’ materials, and the negative environmental, health and social impacts associated with those extractive activities. There is also growing interest in the potential for EV batteries to have ‘second-lives’ in electricity grid applications, supporting the integration of renewable energy sources, and providing emergency back-up energy supplies.

In that context, our study specifically examined the state of the development of policy and regulatory regimes for the post-consumer management of EoL EV batteries in Canada, the United States, and the European Union.

The study’s key finding is that regulatory frameworks for EoL EV battery management are essentially non-existent in North America. BC and California were found to be potentially moving in the direction of establishing preliminary regulatory structures. Quebec did launch a voluntary recovery system in June 2023. Other North American jurisdictions, including Ontario, have indicated that they had no intentions to establish any form of post-consumer management framework.

Publicly available information on the actual fate of EoL EV batteries in North America is extremely limited. It has been argued that the value of EoL EV batteries to recyclers and manufacturers is high enough to prevent them from ending up in landfills or long-term storage. However, in the absence of any transparency requirements around recovery rates and the tracking of the fate of EoL batteries, it is impossible to substantiate these claims.

In contrast to the situation in North America, EoL EV batteries have been managed under a European Union (EU) Battery Directive since 2006. The EU adopted an updated regulatory framework in June 2023 that will be binding on all member states. While weaker than its original proposals for an EoL battery management regime, the EU regulation is based on a principle of extended producer responsibility.  Manufacturers are required to establish recovery and recycling for the EoL batteries they make or introduce into the market. The regulation also establishes systems for tracking the fate of EoL EV batteries, including ‘battery passports,’ and moves in the direction of requiring minimum recycled material content requirements for new batteries.

The study recommends that a national regime for EoL EV battery management be developed in Canada on an urgent basis. Such a system should follow the model of the key elements of the new EU regulation. These should include the responsibility of manufacturers and importers to establish recovery and recycling systems, reporting requirements, and the use of battery ‘passports.’

In a wider sustainability context, the study highlights the need for additional measures, particularly transportation demand management strategies, to reduce the overall demand for private passenger vehicles. Consistent with the EU Regulation, the need to build and maintain strong regulatory regimes around extractive activities related to EV battery supply chains is emphasized as well.

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Mark Winfield is a Professor of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. He is also Co-Chair of the Faculty’s Sustainable Energy Initiative, and Coordinator of the Joint Master of Environmental Studies (MES)/Juris Doctor (JD) program offered in conjunction with Osgoode Hall Law School. He has published articles, book chapters and reports on a wide range of climate change, environment and energy law and policy topics.

Jonathan Myers completed the MES/JD Program at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change and Osgoode Hall Law School in 2023. His graduate-level research examined the circular economy and sustainability and how those concepts interact with energy transitions in response to climate change. Jonathan is currently completing his articling placement, and he hopes to practice litigation related to environmental and natural resources law.

Sumeet Sooch is a graduate of the Master of Environmental Studies (2020) at York University and is a third-year student in the JD program at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Ontario. His graduate-level research concerned environmental policy and sustainability, with a focus on energy storage and electric vehicle battery recycling. In law school, Sumeet has focused on expanding his knowledge in the practice areas of corporate, securities and tax law.

This report flows from a number of research projects that EUC's Sustainable Energy Initiative (SEI) has led or participated in, most significant of which was the NSERC Network on Energy Storage Technology (NEST) project led by Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). The NEST research team led into wider questions about the management and ultimate fate of EOL EV batteries, especially their status within regulatory regimes for recycling and waste management that led to Sooch and Myers's major research papers.

The authors also thank EUC BES alum Abdeali Saherwala (BES Hons, York; MEM, Yale) and MES/JD student Angela Dittrich for their contributions to this report. An article on the report has been published in Policy Options, November 2023.

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