If somebody asks you about the main benefit of EVs, what will your answer be? The first thought for most people is that EVs are simply better for the environment. They do not emit greenhouse gases, do not depend on the extraction of fossil fuels, and require less maintenance.

Then come some secondary benefits, which are just as important – better efficiency, much better acceleration, a simpler build. When you put all of that together you start wondering why we have not adopted the EVs sooner. Especially since the first practical electric car was in use all the way back in the 19th century. So what went wrong?

We can find the answer by looking at the batteries. While old-timey EVs were great, they were not a viable long-distance option. Their range could simply not exceed 30-40 miles, not to mention the lack of fast charging. Due to the inferior technology and no obvious solution, EVs were slowly phased out by more practical alternatives.

But then came the lithium-ion and polymer batteries. They could hold more charge for a longer time in a smaller body with a quicker fill-up. All of a sudden, the EV dream was revitalized. These batteries are now offering a better performing, greener alternative! Or do they?

Are EV batteries too good to be true?

As with many other things in life, if something sounds perfect, it is probably not. EV technology is definitely an improvement over the old internal combustion engine. But at what cost? It turns out there are some things we did not predict correctly – the recycling of those batteries. While that does not mean EVs are a scam, it may be enough to give us pause. However, the problems are not what you would expect.

Technically, EVs are greener compared to the total use of an ICE vehicle. The problem comes from the human factor in this equation. When a battery reaches the end of its lifecycle, it has to be recycled. Yet it cannot recycle itself, can it? And when was the last time you recycled your phone’s battery?

People have a tendency to disregard older stuff they no longer use. But wait a second, are EVs not a little too big to be ignored? The issues cannot all stem from the human factor as we cannot simply throw our cars in the corner of a drawer. That means there is something fishy with all the explanations here, and I am going to find it out!

The truth behind the battery recycling issues

EVs are polarizing for sure. I have to admit that I am also not impartial to them and come from a position of support. So naturally, I see this recent news on battery recycling mainly as fuel for EV opponents. This made me want to delve a bit deeper and figure out if the issues are as prominent as they are made out to be.

Firstly, recycling is indeed a challenge. Yet, it is unreasonable to claim that for EVs only – it has always been an issue for almost all spheres of technology, including regular cars. Secondly, the recycling issue does not make EVs less viable. It simply reduces the “green” aspect of the batteries. Of course, that is not inconsequential, yet it is not a deal-breaker either. The good news is that EVs, in general, are easier to recycle because they have fewer parts and need less clean-up.

Yet, here is the kicker – none of the above even matters. Why? Because the issue with battery recycling has to do primarily with hybrids, not with full EVs. Think about it – a full EV has giant batteries, which you cannot simply avoid. They are a huge part of the whole car.  With hybrids, though, you can do pretty much whatever you want. Even dumping them is pretty easy.

This is why the recycling issue is strictly a human factor. It has nothing to do with how efficiently we recycle the entirety of the battery. Recycling simply does not happen! People can sell their hybrid without many issues, and most of us do not care about the hybrid’s battery life anyway. Though I do have to admit that it presents a unique challenge for the future of automotive history. It is kind of sad to assume that part of your car will become non-functional with time.

Yet it is all about how hybrids were marketed. Even in the beginning, the range was not exactly a major selling point. They were promoted on the grounds that they increase your mpg ratio and recover some energy from braking. Range became a thing only when full EVs were proven to be a viable alternative to traditional cars.

However, I realize that I cannot simply expect people to accept that without more details. This is why I want us to explore full EV batteries in more depth. That way you will see why they are not the issue!

How long do EV batteries last?

If you do a bit of digging online, you will see that most talks about battery recycling focus on 10-year lifespans. This is the red flag to point us that it has nothing to do with the giant batteries in full EVs. Tesla (and many other companies) are working hard to make their batteries last a whole lot more than 10 years.

The biggest issue for any battery is capacity degradation. It does not simply die on you – it stops holding as big of a charge. However, the tech is improving rapidly, and after 10 years of regular use, most EV batteries only lose 15-20% capacity – a practically dismissible amount. Would you say that such a car can no longer be in use? I do not think so.

Furthermore, such degradation will likely get limited even further. Current predictions have it going below 1% a year. So in the span of 10 years, most batteries manufactured today will not lose more than 10% capacity.

Here are a few things that affect the life of a battery so that you have a better idea of why huge batteries will likely never be an issue:

  • Charge cycles. Degradation usually happens over charge cycles not simply with time. However, one cycle is counted for the full capacity of the battery. In other words, every 150-250 miles is one cycle. This is not the same for the batteries of hybrids – their cycles deplete much faster since their range is often below 30-40 miles.
  • Charging speed. Faster charging shortens the life of the battery as well. Current technologies are trying to limit that, but it still happens. Even though it is not substantial, over time it may shorten the battery life by 1 or 2 years.
  • Outside temperature. Physics teaches us that colder climates affect the discharge rate of batteries. That means they have a lesser capacity, meaning shorter cycles. Again – not substantially so, just enough to add up with time.
  • Overall battery capacity. All of the above would be problematic for smaller batteries, but it gets exponentially less of an issue with bigger ones. Think of it as larger batteries having more of a buffer against negative impacts.

Why does any of the above matter though? Because if full EV batteries ever become a challenge, 10 or 15 more years need to pass for us to see that happening. Additionally, Tesla has detailed plans on how to recycle their batteries. That means they are already on top of the issue.

That being said, hybrid battery recycling problems still exist. There are many things that need to be done in order to handle it. Let us see what those are!

The real issues with recycling smaller EV batteries

I will be the first to admit that many people have dropped the ball here. The human factor in this issue is multifaceted. For starters, it may not be too obvious when and how we should recycle hybrid batteries. Who is to blame here though? I believe companies should have been responsible for educating their clients. Something they have clearly failed to do.

As if that is not enough, there is simply not much incentive on recycling your battery anyway. Most folks do not realize the impact of disregarding that aspect of their hybrid. We may be environmentally conscious, but many of us have no idea about the value of battery recycling. This again points to the lack of proper education. If I see my failed battery as nothing more than trash, I may not go out of my way to find the proper channels to deal with it.

In addition, there were some talks about EVs leading us to another dependency. It is natural to assume that battery recycling issues will only make that worse. Thankfully though, that does not seem to be the case. The main reason for recycling the batteries is not to get out the rare earth minerals. It is to put less strain on the environment in general. Although extracting some valuable metals should not be overlooked.

Still, the real issues cannot be solved by inventing new regulations. Laws and rules work well for companies on a bigger scale, but they are useless for most individuals. No one has the resources to track every single owner of a hybrid, nor should we want that to happen for privacy concerns.

In the end, most problems require a good old information campaign, maybe paired with some incentives. We know they work for phone batteries, so maybe we can think of something similar for hybrid batteries too!

Do battery recycling issues cause you to rethink EVs?

I explained why I do not believe that full EVs are to blame for the battery recycling crisis. Even so, you may still not be convinced that their “green” marketing is that genuine. To be fair, when it comes to sales and money, nothing is done simply because it is better for the environment. I still decide to remain an optimist though.

But what about you? Have you considered buying an EV before and did the recent news dissuade you? And if it did – why? I would be happy to hear an alternative point of view!


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