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Are we overlooking plastic pollution from the global battery industry?

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By Daniel F. Akrofi, Carolina Tizeba

· 5 min read

The number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices worldwide is forecast to almost double from 15.1 billion in 2020 to more than 29 billion IoT devices in 2030. A recent report indicated that the global consumer electronics market size was USD 742.6 billion in 2023 and will grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.20 percent from 2023 to 2030. A huge growth has also been recorded in EV sales with over 2.5 million sold globally in 2020 and an expected growth of 32 percent of the total market share for new EV cars by 2030. Plastics are used as components in manufacturing these products and therefore their demand will continue to rise. Plastics, for instance, offer 35 percent weight reduction compared to other materials such as aluminium which makes batteries light and suitable for EVs. Different plastic types are used in Lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) production including Polypropylene (PP), Polyamide (PA), Polycarbonate (PC), Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM), Perfluoroalkoxy, Polyetherimide and Polyphenylsulfone. This is due to among others their flame retardant properties in case of fires as well as their ability to absorb a significant amount of energy in the event of a crash. The low cost of plastic parts reduces battery production costs and may eventually replace most metallic components of batteries. It has been projected that plastics will grow in EV applications at more than a 20 percent compounded annual growth rate from 2020 to 2030. 

Present challenges

Recycling batteries is a glaring challenge staring decision-makers in the face now and more so in the future. While traditional lead-acid batteries are widely recycled (even though the plastic components are in most cases not accounted for), the same can't be said for the LIBs that are predominately used in EVs due to the complexity of the recycling process and the associated expenses. Current figures suggest that only 5 percent of LIBs are recycled and their plastic components are also non-recyclable. The volatility of LIBs has resulted in 48 percent of all fires in waste processing facilities in the UK. This causes non-recyclable plastic components to be burnt which releases chemical additives into the atmosphere. The leftovers of the burnt plastics and the 95 percent of LIBs that are not recycled usually end up in landfills which is hazardous and not a sustainable solution choice. Even more challenging is the fact that there are inadequate EV battery recycling facilities globally (with only two in Europe) amid growing demand for EVs. There are also a plethora of environmental, health and safety issues in the recycling facilities that need to be addressed.

Not overlooking plastic pollution from the global battery industry 

Agenda setting

The projections show that plastics will continue to play an important role in the global battery industry and should therefore be brought to the forefront of agenda-setting when tackling the triple planetary crisis, particularly pollution and climate change. Market leaders and recyclers must play their part in highlighting the importance of this issue and collaboratively defining the path forward. Examples of these market leaders include those in electronics manufacturing (such as Apple Inc, Canon Inc, Dell Inc, Samsung Group, Panasonic Holdings Corporation, Sony Group Corporation, Koninklijke Philips N.V. (Philips), Lenovo Group Limited, The Hewlett-Packard Company (HP Inc), Oneplus, Electrolux AB, LG Corporation (Lucky-Goldstar), Google LLC, Microsoft Corporation, Hitachi Ltd, Robert Bosch GmbH (Bosch), Sennheiser Electronic GmbH & Co KG, Siemens AG, Logitech International S.A., OPPO, ZTE Corporation), LIBs manufacturers (such as CATL (Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd), BYD Company Limited, Ganfeng Lithium, EVE Energy Co., Ltd – all from China; LG Chem and Samsung SDI from South Korea; Panasonic Corporation and AESC (Automotive Energy Supply Corporation) from Japan), electric car manufacturers (such as BYD, Tesla, VW Group, General Motors, Stellantis, Hyundai Motor, BMW Group, Geely Auto Group, Mercedes-Benz Group, and R-N-M Alliance). 

Need for New and Updated Regulations

Negotiators of the global plastic treaty need to make provisions for dealing with the problem which is likely to increase in the next decade. Such proactive measures coupled with updating existing regulations such as the EU Waste Batteries Directive (Directive, 2006/66/EC) in accordance with global Conventions like the proposed global plastic treaty will ensure this problem is tackled head-on as the current EU regulation does not take into account the need to reuse LIBs even though it states that such batteries must be appropriately collected and recycled. Emphasis must be given to plastics used in its production as noted above, plastic types used in battery manufacturing are not currently recyclable. New regulations should therefore promote inter alia sustainable design, traceability of plastic components, enhance environment, health and safety regulations, promote research in developing environmentally benign alternatives, ease of dismantling, improve collection and sorting of plastic components, innovation and technologies (development of state-of-the-art recycling facilities) to recycle these plastics, refurbishing, repurposing, ban the use of such non-recyclable plastics, and ensure that plastic used can be recycled back into the system towards promoting circularity through closed-loop systems and sustainable business models with the battery industry.

Reaching out to relevant stakeholders

Stakeholders such as the Global Battery Alliance (GBA) - an international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), could promote awareness and promote ethical, sustainable, and circular battery value chains towards ensuring plastic pollution is reduced in the global plastic industry. In addition, different international regimes might need to interact such as the Energy Charter Treaty, Basel (1992), Rotterdam (2004) and Stockholm (2004) (BRS) Conventions, Montreal Protocol (1987), International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions, and the proposed global plastic treaty to ensure plastic pollution from the global battery industry is not overlooked.

Sustainability reporting 

Actors in the global battery industry should promote sustainability reporting to ensure that plastic components are quantified and tracked throughout the battery value chain. This will enhance cross-value chain collaborations among actors within the global battery industry and ensure alignment and collaborative standard-setting. 

Final Thoughts 

The proposed global plastic treaty must recognize global plastic pollution from the global battery industry and provide clear mechanisms for tackling the issue. As the craving for electric cars and electronic gadgets continues to rise, negotiators of the treaty, as well as regional and national governments, should not miss this opportunity.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Daniel F. Akrofi is a Commonwealth scholar and an International Sustainability & Legal consultant. He is a Doctoral researcher in International Law & Governance at the University of Lincoln, UK, and holds an MSc. in Water, Sanitation, and International Development from Cranfield University, UK with a BSc. Environmental Science & Natural Resources Management. His expertise revolves around international law, global sustainability & strategy, global environmental (plastic) governance, circular economy, natural resource management, waste management, and WASH.

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Carolina Tizeba is a Commonwealth scholar and a lawyer. She holds an LLM in International Mineral Law and Policy and has worked in Tanzania’s extractive sector for nearly a decade. She has research and leadership experience in INGOs such as the Global Battery Alliance. Her ambition has always been to promote good governance by rectifying policy gaps, respecting the environment and solving social problems.

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