Why Australia has a battery recycling problem – and how it could impact lithium stocks
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While researchers say Australia could be a leader in the re-use and recycling of batteries, we face a number of hurdles in making that happen.
Australia now recycles 2 per cent of its battery waste, but we could capitalise on an industry that will be worth upwards of $3 billion a year by the mid-2030s, Australian scientists said this week.
But to do that a few things have to happen first.
“Australia has a problem. The problem starts with a lack of stewardship and lack of convenience,” Lithium Australia managing director Adrian Griffin told Stockhead.
At the moment, there are not enough recycling collection points in Australia to encourage people to rethink they way they dispose of their batteries.
“You’ve got to make the collection easy,” Mr Griffin said.
“If you could have a pocket full of batteries and head down, for example, to Coles and just throw them in a bin, you’d probably do that because it’s not much of an effort.”
Discount supermarket chain ALDI is currently the only Australian supermarket to offer a battery recycling scheme for shoppers in all its stores.
Since 2013, ALDI has partnered with recycling service provider MRI E-cycle Solutions to divert a total of 356 tonnes of battery waste from landfill.
It is expected that other major supermarket chains like Coles and Woolworths will also eventually follow suit.
The second issue is a lack of government incentives to aid the growth of the battery industry.
Mr Griffin is a member of the executive committee of an organisation called the Australian Battery Recycling Initiative, which has been actively lobbying for legislation changes to ensure that batteries can no longer go to landfill.
“But to make that effective, and it’s something that certainly CSIRO alluded to, you’ve got to have stewardship programs,” he explained.
“You’ve got to have the right incentives to have the materials collected.”
Mr Griffin says Western Australia’s aspirations to establish something similar to Silicon Valley – a Lithium Valley for the battery industry – are likely to be stymied by federal government moves that limit research and development (R&D) funding for bold industry initiatives.
The new cap limits R&D rebates within the lithium-related sector to $4 million a year maximum for development companies with less than $20 million a year in revenue.
So far in Australia, Perth-based Lithium Australia is the only company to locally produce battery cathode materials for customer tests globally.
The cathode is used to conduct electricity flows out of a battery or device.
Lithium Australia has started producing lithium-iron-phosphate battery cathode material and expects to ship samples to cathode producers and battery makers in China and South Korea in the final quarter of this year.
The company is also planning to recycle batteries and is working on a process that will recover all of the materials from old batteries, including the lithium – which currently is not recovered by other recyclers because it is destroyed in the process.
“With mechanisms that utilise a furnace for recycling, you lose the lithium,” Mr Griffin explained.
“What you need to do is develop a recycling technique that recovers all of the metals including the lithium.
“So we set out to do that and we’ve just about completed our process flowsheet that will achieve that.”
A flow sheet is a diagram commonly used in chemical and process engineering to indicate the general flow of plant processes and equipment.
Lithium Australia expects by the end of this year it will have the flow sheet sorted out and make a commitment to build a pilot plant.
Recycling won’t displace lithium mine supply
The growth of the battery recycling industry in Australia is unlikely to have a significant impact on Australia’s lithium production.
Mr Griffin says the lithium-ion battery market is growing too rapidly at the moment – at a rate of 18 per cent each year – for it to make a dent.
“So if you recycled 100 per cent of today’s volume, in five years’ time that’s only going to be 20 per cent anyway,” he said.
“While the market is growing at such a rate and it’s not saturated, there’s no way that recycling is going to have a significant impact on the lithium industry.”