The buzz in battery recycling

Simple photo of electronics with lithium batteries, including a phone, tablet, portable charger and camera.
Most electronics contain valuable minerals, including lithium. Photo: Koby Cooke.

Australian battery recycling company Envirostream has exceeded its 12-month target of processing 250 tonnes of batteries supplied by consumer goods and electronics company LG, according to Environstream’s customer solutions manager Ben Pritchard.

Envirostream is part of the growing lithium recycling sector, with a total processing capacity of 3000 tons per year. Mr Pritchard said the target was part of a deal forged with LG in September 2022, in which LG agreed to supply Envirostream with a minimum of 250 tonnes of lithium ion batteries. Now that the 12 month goal has been reached the arrangement between LG and Envirostream is set to continue as six-monthly rolling contracts.

Over the past twelve months, one of the most significant drivers for Envirostream has been the higher levels of depleted batteries supplied by key partners, including LG, Office Works, Battery World and Bunnings.

While Envirostream is seeking access to greater numbers of depleted batteries from a number of sources, Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability and lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Transport, explained the difficulties the company faces: “The biggest issue is how you bring batteries together and get them to a recycling facility.”

Professor Newman said the materials produced through recycling are of the same high quality as those dug out of the ground and processed brand new. The science behind recycling batteries isn’t complicated, dangerous or environmentally damaging.

However, Professor Newman said collecting enough batteries to make recycling more viable in the future requires behavioural change, assistance from the government and help from battery manufacturers. He said this could include better labelling of materials in batteries produced, easier access to collection points and a behavioural shift to dispose of batteries at recycling collection points, instead of in household waste bins.

Australia is already the world’s top lithium supplier, providing just over 46 per cent of the world’s annual supply of the increasingly valuable metal. Boosting the amount of these crucial minerals recycled here would only add to the amount Australia contributes to global supply.

When the Australian statistics on mineral resources were released earlier this year as part of Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources report. The Federal Minister for Resources, Madeline King, said: “As the world’s largest producer of lithium, a key component in batteries for electric vehicles, our minerals sector has an enormous role to play in the success of the energy transition over the coming decades.”

In addition to being used in batteries, lithium is used in alloys and other industrial applications, cementing its position as a critical mineral for the future. The increased demand has resulted in increased investment in Australia’s onshore processing capacity, via the development of new production plants and the expansion of existing plants.

Major lithium projects in WA include Albemarle’s lithium hydroxide plant just outside Bunbury in the Southwest and the Covalent lithium project, which has a mine and concentrator at Mount Holland, 110km south-east of Southern Cross, and a refinery in Kwinana.