Improvements and ground breaking discoveries that can boost the performance of lithium-ion batteries have flooded the news over the past few years. And there is no question to why this has happened, really.
Ever since they were first introduced back in 1991 by Sony, lithium-ion batteries have grown to be the most reliable, reusable and least harmful mean of energy storage. Smartphones, electric vehicles, even renewable energy plants, they all depend on what this technology has to offer. Unfortunately, regardless of their amazing properties, these batteries have to be disposed of at some point, and this is where the problem comes. Although recycling them, and getting back the metals that are used inside, is extremely cost effective and environmentally friendly, only 5% of what has been sold is being recycled, according to recent reports. But why is this?
According to the largest recycling company of lithium-ion batteries in Europe, Umicore, if old batteries are recycled and the metals are recovered, the ecological footprint is reduced by as much as 90% compared to conventional mining. Yet, in 2010, European Union reported a minimal amount of batteries being sent for recycling. What makes it even more interesting, however, is the fact that no much has been sent to landfills either. Some would argue that this is due to the EU landfill regulations, but actually it is not the case when we consider the global picture.
The reasoning behind this is the fact that people tend to keep their old phones safe in a drawer or in a box. Why do we do this? No idea. Probably it has something to do with being sentimentally attached to the old gadget, or simply seeing a value that stops us from giving it away and trying to resell what we do not wish to have anymore. But we do have to keep in mind that by storing the phones somewhere or shipping the gadgets to a different location, we also store the precious metals that can be otherwise recycled and put into use again, or we simply relocate the potentially very polluting gadget.
Although this bad habit might sound harmless, it actually is not. To begin with, the metals that are used in the lithium-ion batteries of all new gadgets are mostly derived from primary mining, a process which causes much more damage than good, and countries with fewer regulations suffer the most. Direct environmental damage, exploitation of child labor, soil and water pollution, these are only very few of the consequences the mining industry has on the world’s biggest producers of the metals- the developing countries. In addition, the second hand market for used electronic devices from EU and the U.S. in Africa and Asia is huge, yet there are no regulations there that stop the users from dumping the gadgets in landfills, polluting greatly the land and water resources.
According to experts, the problem has not yet reached a devastating point, but there is definitely a growing need for action, especially since the latest new technologies have inbuilt, non-removable, lithium-ion batteries in them. People should be made aware and should create the habit of recycling their unneeded smartphones, at least so that they don’t carry the burden of being responsible for any future environmental damage.
Image (c) Reuters