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Lithium batteries: Far more widely recycled than second-hand statistics imply

Lithium-ion batteries are far more widely recycled than many people think, while China and South Korea are already leaders of the emerging circular economy of lithium, a report commissioned by the Swedish Energy Agency has found.

An often-cited figure is that “5% of lithium-ion batteries are recycled”, when in fact this statistic, taken originally from a Friends of the Earth research report, is itself now nine years old, yet has been repeated over the years and was even cited in an April 2019 editorial for the scientific journal, Nature Energy.

The new report’s author, Hans Eric Melin, a consultant with UK-based Circular Energy Storage, was hired by the Swedish Energy Agency, which is part of the country’s Ministry of Environment and Energy and in charge of administering battery research funding.

Melin’s report claims that “many companies” in China and South Korea in fact are recycling, despite the “general perception that this is barely happening at all”. While admitting that his evidence is based on personal experience, he writes that: “for somebody who visits collectors and recyclers around the world it becomes clear that significantly more batteries than only 5% are recycled”.

More than 300 studies of primary research have been conducted worldwide in separating materials in used batteries and re-producing cathode materials or their precursors, 70% of those studies in the two aforementioned Asian battery powerhouses, and finding that “all active materials including lithium can be recycled with high efficiency”.