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House of Commons Hansard
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Electric Car Batteries: Disposal and Recycling
11 March 2020
Volume 673

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

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It is a great pleasure to speak in this important debate. Although the Budget and, unfortunately, the coronavirus crisis will take the headlines today, the climate emergency and our transition to a net zero economy remain the greatest challenges facing humanity. We will have to change many aspects of our society to address them, and that includes what we drive.

Under the Government’s plans, 15 years from now internal combustion engines will no longer be sold new in this country. Moving away from petrol-based engines is a challenge, but also a huge opportunity for the UK automotive industry. Transport makes up 26% of emissions and the automotive sector can make a dramatic contribution to achieving a net zero economy and saving our planet. That will require a massive rise in the number of electric vehicles in the UK.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders expects registrations for electric vehicles to rise by 77% this year, and National Grid predicts that they will rise from 100,000 to 36 million by 2040—an increase of 36,000%. As part of that, the number of electric vehicle batteries will rise exponentially. There are a few hundred lithium cells in a Nissan Leaf and thousands in a Tesla—a second-hand market will undoubtedly develop. I want to emphasise what amazing technological innovation there has been in batteries in the last few decades.

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This is obviously an important issue. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to be pre-emptively working rather than waiting until everyone owns an electric car? A massive environmental aspect has not been fully considered and planned for. The sheer volume of the cars that will be using these batteries demands better forward planning. We need that planning right now.

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The hon. Gentleman might well have read my speech, because those are exactly the points that I hope to make.

Returning now to innovation, when I studied electrical engineering at Imperial some decades ago, batteries were big, boring and messy. Now they are at the cutting edge of many exciting developments. We are getting down to the fundamentals of physics in the storage of energy and its applications everywhere from our smartphones to our national grid. Batteries are getting smaller, safer, more sustainable and more manageable, but we must also acknowledge that we are entering an era of battery reuse, recycling and transportation the like of which we have never before seen.

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I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that in the United States, Senator Angus King has just introduced a Bill this month calling for investment worth $150 million in lithium battery recycling and research over the next five years. Wales is home to key strategic industrial sites such as Vale Nickel in Clydach and Envirowales in Ebbw Vale. They could play a part in recycling the batteries of the future. Will the hon. Lady join me in pressing the Minister to explain how the Government will support Wales to ensure that our existing industrial base is able to make the transition to recycle future battery technologies, and whether the UK is investing enough in this area to remain internationally competitive?

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I am sure that the right hon. Lady will understand if I say that I shall be pressing the Minister to address how the investment will be coming to Newcastle and the north-east.

Through this debate, I hope we can gain a greater understanding of the significant opportunity for our recycling sector across the country, but particularly the contribution that the north-east can make.

The most common battery types in modern electric cars are lithium-ion. They hold a high-energy density, with up to 700 watt-hours per litre, which is seven times the density of traditional LED batteries. That means that lithium batteries are more suited for use in electric vehicles as they can hold charge for longer-distance journeys. The expanding electric vehicle market will mean many more lithium batteries, and the typical warranty period for these batteries is eight years or 100,000 miles. Legislation requires that manufacturers take back the batteries, but it does not say what they should do with them. It says:

“Producers of automotive batteries must collect waste automotive batteries for free from their final holders, such as garages and scrapyards.”

There is no mention of lithium batteries in the Batteries and Accumulators (Placing on the Market) Regulations 2008, nor in the amendments in 2015. The European directive 2013/56/EU and the Capacity Labelling of Portable Secondary (Rechargeable) and Automotive Batteries and Accumulators Regulations all admit the legal framework for recycling. I hope the Minister will address that. In the not-too-distant future, we are likely to be facing a large lithium-ion battery mountain with nowhere for it to go unless we put the processes in place now.

Lithium batteries are not considered suitable for electric vehicle applications when their cell capacity falls below 80% of its original value. Their reuse at this point is known as second-life application, and there is interest in, for example, securing supplies to recondition for energy grid value balancing, or for using again in electric vehicles, or other applications.

Indeed, I should say that I underwent a revelation when I realised that the increasing demand for electric storage caused by the unpredictable or cyclical nature of many renewable energy sources, such as wind and tide, could be balanced quite literally by the fact that every car owner in the future will have a significant battery storage capacity sitting on their drive. That is true during the lifetime of the battery, but it is also a factor afterwards.

For example, in China selling a reused end-of-life battery can raise up to 10 times more for the owner than recycling. However, second-life applications delay, rather than eliminate, the challenge of recycling. Research also suggests that safety issues increase with second-life applications, given the absence of a regulatory framework. Stockpiling is unsafe and environmentally undesirable, and it is illegal to send electric vehicle batteries to landfill, so if the direct reuse of a lithium battery is not possible, it must be recycled. There are further environmental considerations. Batteries are made with expensive and rare minerals, the mining of which raises environmental—and often human rights—concerns. Recycling helps to minimise the need for new mineral extraction and provides the UK with resilience in the light of supply chain risks. I hope the Minister will agree that we should be encouraging a significant recycling programme.

There is also the safety risk. Without the capacity to recycle a large number of batteries appropriately and affordably, we could see overuse, fly-tipping and unregulated reselling. In the short time that electric vehicles have been about, not many battery packs have reached the end of their eight-year life, and there were only 1,262 electric cars registered in the UK eight years ago. That is going to change.

Petrol cars have significant safety risks too. Two cars in every 1,000 registered in the UK catch fire each year, but these are known to our fire services, who can extinguish petrol or diesel vehicle fires within one hour. By contrast, lithium-ion battery fires can take up to eight hours, and require different skills and tools to extinguish. Research from Newcastle University found that a damaged battery ignited twice within 24 hours and then again six days afterwards, with violent explosions being a potential feature of electric vehicle and lithium-ion battery fires. Furthermore, electric vehicles are not legally required to be marked with information on the batteries they contain for the information of arriving emergency services.

Ongoing work by the UK health and safety of energy storage governance group—chaired by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, of which I am a member—raised concerns that the Home Office system used by the fire brigade to report incidents does not actually have a category for energy storage systems. The group is working on a code of practice to support professionals, and I hope the Minister will discuss this with her colleagues.

There continue to be advances in battery technology, and I pay tribute to the work of the Faraday Institution’s SOLBAT project in seeking to bring solid-state batteries to the market. They lack the flammable liquid electrolyte found in lithium-ion batteries, and are therefore safer. However, we must assume that lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate for some years to come.

There are no facilities in the UK to recycle electric car batteries, so the small volume currently being created are exported to Europe, where they are destroyed in high temperature furnaces. This enables the recovery of valuable critical elements such as cobalt and nickel, but at least 50% of the battery materials are not recovered. Currently, the number of electric vehicle batteries being sent for recycling in this way is so low that the Environment Agency does not even record the figures. When UK firms export their batteries to Europe, they have to pay a gate fee of thousands of pounds. This is not feasible in the long term, given the expected increase in numbers. I understand that ECOBAT Logistics, the largest UK recycler of non-lithium-ion batteries, is looking seriously at initiating a lithium-ion battery recycling industry in the UK. Is the Minister in talks with that company?

There is also a Brexit question. Without a recycling facility of our own, we will be in a vulnerable position when the EU transition period ends. The Government have yet to set out the UK’s equivalent of the waste batteries and accumulators directive 2006. We may face export restrictions or duties, and we would have to accept external prices since these materials cannot be landfilled. Given that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it will take planning and investment to develop the processes and permits for a battery processing factory in the United Kingdom, it is essential to get started now. We have to remember that it is not safe to stockpile these end-of-life batteries and let them accumulate in the UK.

I have talked a little bit about the challenges, because I want to emphasise to the Minister the importance of taking the right decisions now, but there are also opportunities that can help to level up our nation. The Faraday Institution-funded ReLiB project is researching ways to facilitate a circular economy in lithium-ion batteries, and Newcastle University has benefited from some of its work packages. Newcastle University is also proposing a battery safety health and environment hub on Tyneside. That is a fantastic idea. This hub would upskill and train those working with lithium batteries to safely manage and dispose of them, helping to address worker safety issues and some of the concerns I have raised. Would the Minister support such a hub?

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Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

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I am sorry, but I need to give the Minister some time to answer my questions.

At the moment, our fire services do not have the appropriate resources, training and personal protective equipment necessary to deal with these new challenges. It is estimated that up to 25% of the 510 fires in UK material recycling facilities in 2018 were caused by small lithium batteries. In 2019, one such fire in Dunbar, Scotland took over 40 firefighters to contain. A specialist training facility such as that proposed on Tyneside would have helped to reduce the pollution and damage. A recycling plant could have entirely avoided it.

Recycling plants, touching on the point made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), do need to be regional. Electric vehicle batteries are classed as hazardous waste, and the further they are transported, the greater the risk. As we have the skills in the north-east to support such a plant, we would welcome one in our region. We are a global leader in electric vehicles. The Washington Nissan plant introduced electric cars to Europe in 2011, creating a brand-new lithium battery plant from scratch in 18 months. Washington’s Envision-AESC factory is the first of its kind in the UK and leads the world in battery technology. It is eager to expand and exploit the new market opportunities offered by the lithium-ion technology revolution, and it has the knowledge to do so. We are going to need at least five battery gigafactories across the country to meet our decarbonisation targets—let us have one in the north-east. I know that that is more a matter for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but I hope the Minister will speak to BEIS about it.

Newcastle University is a centre of excellence in electric vehicles, leading a £300 million pound project entitled “Driving the Electric Revolution”. It has performed fascinating research on the systems integration of electric vehicle charging points. Northern Grid is actively looking at ways to integrate battery technology into the network. I am grateful for the Government’s commitment of £274 million between 2017 and 2021 to the Faraday Institution for research on the development and scale-up of world-leading battery technology in the UK. This has supported some of the research at Newcastle University. However, I am concerned that future funding remains unclear after this year. Will the Minister speak to her BEIS colleagues and meet me to discuss how Newcastle and the north-east can play a critical role in the safe storage, transportation and recycling of electric vehicle batteries?

We clearly need a circular economy for lithium batteries. Regulations, codes and standards are an important part of this, as are research and development to deliver at-scale recycling facilities, and safety guidance and training. I hope the Minister will welcome the opportunity to work with me to ensure that Newcastle can be a centre for all those things.

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I hope I am going to inject some electricity into this subject, which is very new. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on securing the debate; I know that she has had training as an electrical engineer, so it did not surprise me at all that she secured it. The electric vehicle agenda is a rapidly changing horizon, and considering the treatment and recycling of electric batteries is crucial, given that we are moving towards a greener, cleaner future. The Government are committed to that, and I am proud to be part of a Government who have made this a focus of their agenda, but she is right that we have to seriously address this area.

I want to look at some of the things that are happening. There are already important protections in place applying to both electric vehicles and the batteries they contain. Under legislation applying to end-of-life vehicles, vehicles have to be treated at suitable facilities—that is, facilities with the required infrastructure in place and permitted by the environmental regulators. Those authorised treatment facilities must undertake certain de-pollution activities, which includes removal of the batteries. The legislation also requires dismantling information to be made available by vehicle manufacturers within six months of bringing a new type of vehicle to market.

Most vehicle manufacturers meet that obligation through the international dismantling information system. Government guidance on the de-pollution of vehicles stresses the additional hazards of dealing with electric vehicles, the need for de-pollution to be undertaken by appropriately qualified personnel and the need to refer to manufacturer-specific information, with IDIS identified as a relevant source. I had a look at the guidance yesterday, and it is extremely detailed.

In parallel with the end-of-life vehicles regulations, there are also regulations governing the disposal and recycling of batteries. In particular, the batteries regulations ban the disposal to landfill as well as the incineration of both automotive and industrial batteries. Under the regulations, electric vehicle batteries are classified as industrial batteries. The regulations require those placing electric vehicle batteries on the market for the first time, whether as batteries or as part of the vehicle, to register as a battery producer. Industrial battery producers are obligated to take back such batteries, including electric vehicle batteries, free of charge from end users. That provides a mechanism to ensure that, where there are costs for battery treatment and recycling, they can be met by the battery producer under the principle of producer responsibility.

As with vehicles, those who are able to treat and recycle electric vehicle batteries are carefully controlled. Electric vehicle batteries are required to be handled by approved battery treatment operators or approved battery exporters holding the requisite authorisations from the environment regulators. Treatment has to meet certain minimum recycling efficiencies, which for lithium-ion chemistry batteries is 50%. Together, the batteries and end-of-life vehicles regulations provide a framework for the sound management of electric vehicle batteries at end of life.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I just want to give some details about numbers of batteries. Typically, between 1.3 million and 1.4 million cars and light vehicles are declared as treated in the UK each year, with an average age of around 14 years. The number of electric vehicle batteries that arise for treatment remains low—in fact, very low—and, in relative terms, it is likely to remain low for some time. By way of illustration, in 2019 the numbers of Teslas and Nissan Leafs presented for treatment were in the 20s, and the long-standing Toyota Prius hybrid was under 500.

Today’s electric vehicle batteries have performance guarantees of about eight years or 100,000 miles, but they can last up to 20 years. This is improving with the advance of battery pack management technologies. When electric vehicles reach end of life, remaining battery storage capacity is expected to be over 70%. To minimise environmental impacts and extract maximum economic value, these batteries can be reused, as the hon. Member mentioned, for second-life applications—that is probably what she was going to say if she had intervened—such as domestic and industrial energy storage, and these markets are being actively explored and developed.

The limited volumes of electric vehicle batteries currently received for treatment are, as the hon. Member said, exported to Europe for processing. Valuable materials such as cobalt and nickel are recovered, but the processes, as she said, are inefficient. There are presently—I am not going to disagree with her on this—no recycling facilities for end-of-life electric vehicle lithium-ion batteries in the UK, although we are aware of plans to bring forward such facilities, and she mentioned an example. There is definitely movement in the market in this area.

It is perhaps pertinent to highlight the continuing development of lithium-ion battery technology, with pressure both to reduce the volume of critical materials used in their manufacture and to increase the energy density of the battery packs. It is anticipated that this will lead to less cobalt—it is a finite, very valuable raw material—being required in these batteries, and less material overall for recycling by reprocessors.

The Government-funded Faraday battery challenge is playing a leading role in supporting the recycling and reuse of battery components in the UK. I am pleased that the hon. Member acknowledged this and referred to it several times. This will contribute to the development of a more circular economy and help to meet our net zero commitments. The Faraday Institution’s ReLiB—recycling of lithium-ion batteries—project is developing the technological, economic and legal infrastructure to allow close to 100% of the materials in lithium-ion batteries to be recycled. I want to mention—I think I have time—one focus of the Faraday project, which is to look specifically at the potential gains to be made from various second-life applications of electric vehicle batteries, and to determine when their useful life has expired and the material should be recycled.

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I thank the Minister for her comments, which have echoed much of my speech. Could she possibly focus on investment in Newcastle and the north-east, and specifically on the hub for recycling at scale?

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I will come to that right at the end, so I am going to keep the hon. Member waiting.

The hon. Member touched on second-life applications, and there is clearly a great deal of mileage there. This valuable project is, for example, specifically seeking to create a new and complete end-of-life supply chain network in the UK that includes second-life battery applications. There is an industry group, chaired by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, that is considering the safety aspects—[Interruption.] The hon. Member chairs it, so she is absolutely in the right place in this growing new area. As she said, it is considering the safety aspects attached to this developing market and to storage. Officials from both the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and my Department are working closely with that group, so they are taking a great deal of interest in the work that the group is doing.

In December 2018, the Government published the resources and waste strategy. It is another interesting document, Mr Deputy Speaker, which I know you will be getting out of the Library. [Interruption.] It is really interesting. It sets an ambitious agenda, and we are committed to delivering it. That includes reviewing the existing producer responsibility schemes, such as those applying to batteries and end-of-life vehicles.

The review of end-of-life vehicles is scheduled for 2021. Reviews of batteries and waste electricals are under way, and are due to deliver proposals for change at the end of this year. We recognise that improvements to those regimes must be made, and my officials have been discussing areas of focus with industry and other interested parties. In particular, we are keen to consider whether the present framework covering the disposal and recycling of electric vehicle batteries will be fit for purpose in light of the changing nature and prevalence of such batteries—all points that the hon. Member touched on, and I hope that she welcomes this review. It is clear that battery issues will be a key consideration in the end-of-life vehicles review.

I thank the hon. Member for raising this important issue. The Government recognise the disposal and recycling challenge that has been presented, and this review is timely, as is engagement with industry and all the different bodies. We must take full advantage of the opportunities that could arise out of this situation—again, the hon. Member raised that point—including in Wales, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), in Northern Ireland, and indeed in all the devolved nations. This is a devolved issue, but officials are working closely on it, particularly with Newcastle, and we are particularly interested in the battery safety and environment hub, which sounds extremely interesting. I hope the hon. Lady will keep me posted, including on her wider ambitions for the area in this exciting and developing landscape.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.