The lurking threat of EV batteries

In his late 20s, Hassan Naqvi is one of the few people who ride electric vehicles (EV) in Lahore, but the number is estimated to rise dramatically in the coming decade. Every year Mr Naqvi has to change the Lithium-Ion battery used in his e-bike, which is quite a headache as the battery of an electric vehicle has to be replaced every year or two. Mr Naqvi seems unsure about the expired battery and says that no instruction was issued to him about what to do with it after it expires. “I just randomly give away the expired Lithium battery to the garbage picker in our street”. He says casually.

In a narrow street of Mishri Shah Loha Market, which is home to the metal scrap of Lahore, a middle-aged worker, squatting on the ground with a lit cigarette in one hand, runs his other hand through the heap of discarded mobile batteries and Lithium cells. In between the clouds of dust and smoke emitting from the cigarette are a few lithium-ion Cells used in electric vehicles and solar batteries. He picks up the cylindrical-shaped, colourfully wrapped Lithium cells and sets them aside on a separate sack lying flat on the floor. The lithium cells have made their way to this shop riding on trucks full of garbage from across Punjab.

“We go through the waste disposed of by people and take the batteries out,” says Afzal, a worker in his thirties at the shop. “Various dealers from Peshawar and Gujranwala buy these batteries and lithium cells, some of them are burnt, and some elements such as copper and nickel are extracted as far as I know,” he says.

For years, mobile batteries have been collected by garbage dealers daily, but in the last decade, dry batteries and Lithium cells have also started appearing as guests. “We do not break batteries as there comes a foul stingy smell that makes it difficult to breathe, and we are unsure about the chemical composition of most batteries and cells,” says Muhammad Owais, 55, owner of an old battery shop.

Lithium is a reactive metal that needs a proper disposal mechanism since its mishandling can cause fires or explosions

Some batteries are sold, but a part of them is again dumped due to their apparent uselessness. The dealers in Misri Shah market say that no government department or any organisation has ever approached them to train or inform them about the handling of these Lithium batteries or suggest solutions for their disposal.

“Lithium-ion batteries should not be disposed of in garbage as they can have an adverse environmental impact. Lithium is a reactive metal that needs a proper disposal mechanism. Lithium is also sensitive to moisture, and mishandling can cause damaging accidents like a fire or an explosion,” says Atif Pervez, a battery research scientist working in Toronto, Canada.

Driving electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries is surely a greener solution, but the birth of lithium metal from the mines and its disposal has a considerable environmental impact acknowledged by the EV market.

According to a report by United Nations, the world produces around 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste), including lithium-ion batteries used in mobile in a single year, and only 20 per cent of it is formally recycled. Lithium-ion cells have been used as mobile batteries for decades now, but the global market is seeing a huge influx of much heavier lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles.

The major concern is if there is no system of disposal for the smaller lithium batteries of mobiles, how would the much heavier batteries of e-bikes and cars be disposed of?

“Children and digital dumpsites report 2021” quotes that Pakistan produced 433 kilotons of e-waste last year with no national policy for e-waste management in place. Lithium in the e-waste is the cause of lung diseases in children as well. According to research, high levels of lithium in water coming from improper disposal of batteries and cells can cause the human body cell damage causing health issues.

In July 2022, the European chemical agency also sent a proposal to the European Commission to classify three compounds of lithium as hazardous to human health. On 20th Dec, Pakistan’s federal cabinet vowed to replace petroleum-run bikes with e-bikes. Every year, a huge number of heavy lithium batteries will be disposed of in Pakistan, and the government seems to have no plan for the lurking threat of lithium battery disposal.

Punjab Batteries (Environmental Management and Handling) Rules, 2020, does talk about the recycling of lead batteries, but the management of lithium-ion batteries is not even mentioned in it. As a first step, the government needs to acknowledge the existence of lithium batteries. The rules mention that the supplier would inform people about the environmental hazards of the battery being used, but neither lead acid nor lithium-ion battery sellers do that. The collection of these batteries is also the responsibility of the manufacturer, importer, or assembler, but manufacturers of lithium batteries in Lahore do not take responsibility.

According to Forbes, there is a rough estimate that only 5pc of lithium batteries are recycled globally. The batteries also contain cobalt and nickel, which are heavy metals that can sweep into the environment. By the year 2030, the demand for lithium might increase by 30pc, which would bring with it a higher than ever level of lithium being disposed of.

While talking about the short lifespans of lithium-ion batteries, Mr Pervez explained that an electric battery working at 80pc capacity becomes useless for electric vehicles. However, it has value for other purposes until its capacity drops to 10-20pc, but for that, it is important to collect the batteries efficiently.

“Right now, we do not have a system in place for the disposal of lithium batteries. It may evolve with time, but for that, the government needs to start regulating it,” he says.

The writer is a freelance Lahore-based journalist reporting on climate, energy and environment

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 9th, 2023

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