As e-bikes and e-scooters grow in popularity, Rebecca Morley looks at the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries and how they can be disposed of sustainably.
This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here
Whether it’s cars, bikes or scooters, the future of transport is becoming increasingly electric. But with this trend comes the issue of how to dispose of old batteries – they can’t just be thrown in the bin, and with broken and damaged batteries in particular being potential safety risks, the need for the whole industry to make sure all batteries are being disposed of properly has never been more important.
But what is the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries, and how can they be disposed of sustainably? BikeBiz spoke to micromobility operators Tier and Lime to find out how they are approaching this issue.
Andrew Savage, VP, head of sustainability at Lime, said the firm’s batteries have a Battery Management System (BMS), which regulates the batteries in order to extend their productive life.
“Improved battery efficiency means the range of the e-scooters is around 50 kilometres. All batteries are swappable, meaning e-scooters can be recharged without travelling to and from a charging location every day, reducing vehicle use for managing scooters. The lifespan is over 30,000 km for an e-bike and over 13,000 km on an average battery for an e-scooter.”
Szonja Ran, global sustainability lead at Tier Mobility, said batteries have a lifespan of 400-700 charging cycles on average. “During use, sometimes batteries may get damaged earlier in their lifecycle, so by repairing them, we aim to bring Tier batteries to the end of their predicted life-time.
“Batteries are a key component of our electric vehicle fleet,” continued Ran. “Tier exclusively sources battery cells from established international cell producers, all of which are required to follow the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict Affected and High-Risk Areas.
“Nevertheless, the threat of long-term shortages of lithium and cobalt, the associated price volatility, and the environmental and social impacts of mining and smelting remain key challenges for our sector.
“To better address these challenges, we aim to extend battery life and minimise the environmental and social impacts associated with the production and end-of-life management of our batteries.”
To maximise the lifespan of each battery cell, Tier partners with several battery repair and recycling companies that collect defective e-scooter batteries, repairing them if possible and returning them to the respective markets.
“We also look to partner with second-life for batteries companies that can extend the lifespan of our batteries once they don’t charge to a threshold capacity that is needed for circulation in our shared fleet,” said Ran.
“For damaged batteries, we can currently repair 80% of those that are non-critically damaged. For those batteries that are beyond repair, the cells are extracted and individually evaluated to determine their state of health. They are then sorted to be reused or processed into new products, considerably extending their service life. By 2025, we aim to repair or repurpose 85% of all non-severely damaged batteries.”
Tier also actively works on adapting battery design, continued Ran. “Specifically, we have developed specifications for a more modular battery pack design that allows us to easily replace certain high-wear components such as locks and connectors while also ensuring that they are durable to withstand weather, heavy shared use, and potential vandalism.”
Lime’s Andrew Savage said that typically, more than 70% of the component parts of its batteries are able to be recycled, which is “well above” the leading global and European standards.
“However, second life uses are even more sustainable than recycling and present a great opportunity to further reduce our carbon usage. In many cases, the individual cells that make up a battery still have full capacity to retain a charge and can be re-packaged and put back together for an entirely new useful life.”
Lime has also partnered with Gomi to create portable bluetooth speakers from Lime’s e-bike and e-scooter batteries that are no longer functioning, giving them a second life.
But what about getting rid of old batteries? Like many industries, there is a push within micromobility to offer recycling services, particularly as companies look to be as sustainable as possible. Lime’s old batteries are recycled, Savage said, with the metals going through a sorting machine to sort cobalt, iron, copper, nickel and aluminium. Metal components have a 95% recovery rate.
Tier said waste management in its warehouses is guided by the waste hierarchy, avoiding waste production wherever possible and prioritising repair and reuse. “For those materials that can no longer be repaired or reused, we recycle materials as efficiently as possible by sorting all waste streams by material type,” Ran said. “Our goal is to achieve zero-waste status in the long run.”
The company has also entered into a partnership with recycling provider Remondis, for the disposal of its battery and electronic waste. “The partnership guarantees that 100% of our global waste batteries and electronic waste is collected and sent to proper material recycling. For all other waste streams, we work closely with national disposal companies to set up the most efficient disposal systems possible.
“Thanks to our partnership with Remondis, Tier can ensure compliance with the recovery targets in the EU battery directive including the upcoming revision of these targets: 90% for cobalt, copper, lead and nickel, and 35% for lithium, to be achieved by the end of 2025. By 2030, the recovery levels should reach 95% for cobalt, copper, lead and nickel, and 70% for lithium.”
As for issues the industry faces as a whole, Ran said that as far as the battery is concerned, there are similar challenges to those faced by the entire electro-mobility industry when it comes to increasing the life of the batteries and recycling as much as possible from used batteries.
“Tier will minimise resource consumption, keep vehicles and resources in a cycle for as long as possible and avoid waste during production, use phase and end of life,” Ran said.
“By 2025, we will more than double the share of secondary raw materials used in all our vehicles to at least 40%, increase the share of recyclable raw materials across our vehicles from 85% to over 90%, and achieve a zero waste status in all our warehouses. In addition, to minimise the environmental impact of our batteries, we will increase the share of non-critically damaged batteries repaired from 80% to at least 85%.”