Are sustainable batteries possible?

A “sustainable battery” implies that its production, use, and end-of-life handling is done without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs; environmentally, socially, and economically. Eva Fontes, Director of Transportation Technologies North Europe, discusses opportunities as well as stumbling blocks on the road to a truly sustainable battery value chain.

13 December 2021

Lithium-ion batteries are the fastest growing battery technology on the market. The demand for lithium-ion batteries is expected to sky-rocket with an annual growth of more than 30 % the next decade, driven mainly by the electrification of transportation and the deployment of batteries in electricity grids.

Together, the transport and power sectors currently comprise around 40% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With the right conditions in place, batteries are a true systemic enabler of a major shift towards GHG neutrality. However, lithium-ion batteries are not a sustainable solution today. 

The lithium-ion battery value chain

The lithium-ion battery value chain is typically divided into 6 segments spanning the spectrum from raw material mining to battery recycling and disposal: 


Mining and chemical industries provide the raw and processed materials used in the production of the various cell components including the anode, cathode, electrolyte, and separator. These components are then assembled into individual cells and battery packs. 

When batteries have reached the end of life in their first application, they can be recycled or alternatively employed in a second use application. For example, when 80% of the initial energy capacity remain in electric vehicle batteries, the batteries are no longer good enough to be used in vehicles. This gives an opportunity for prolonging the life of the batteries by giving them a second life in a less demanding application, such as stationary energy storage. 

Moving from a linear to a circular value chain can improve both environmental and economic footprints of batteries by getting more out of the batteries while in use, as well as harvesting end-of-life value from them.

A key technology in achieving global sustainability goals

The battery is a key technology to achieving the Paris Agreement and supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Batteries act as energy storage in electric vehicles. Batteries also serve as an energy buffer in power systems, supporting the integration of renewable energy generation. 

Besides decarbonization, batteries enable decentralized and off-grid energy solutions and could potentially create 10 million safe and sustainable jobs around the world. 

However, scaling up the use of batteries have significant negative impacts on the environment, since today’s battery production itself has a significant GHG footprint. The production of active materials and other components, as well as the production of cells, are the most GHG emission-intense steps in the battery value chain. But the mining and refining of the raw materials, the pack production, and the recycling of batteries also require a large amount of electrical power. Reducing the battery production GHG footprint is a significant opportunity.

The raw material demand, with a near-term focus on cobalt but also on nickel and lithium, will cause significant social, environmental and integrity risk. This may involve child labour, different forms of forced labour, unsafe working conditions; local air, water, and soil pollution; biodiversity loss, as well as corruption.

Recycling of lithium-ion batteries is currently low; only a few percent of all the lithium-ion batteries in the world are recycled. This cannot be ascribed only to the lack of economic incentive inherent in the battery chemistries, it also has to do with poor knowledge of battery content and design, as well as lack of proper marking of the packs and cells. 

Increasing the recycling of batteries and decreasing the scrap rate in the manufacturing process, will have a direct impact on the sustainability of battery production.

Future regulations with the objective to promote and secure sustainability

Today, the Directive 2006/66/EC on batteries and accumulators (the Batteries Directive) is the main legal act regulating batteries at EU level. With some exceptions, the directive applies to all types of batteries, no matter their chemical nature, size, or design. 

In summary, the Battery Directive:   

  • sets maximum quantities for certain chemicals and metals in certain batteries, 
  • tasks Member States with encouraging improvements to the environmental performance of batteries, 
  • put requirements on proper waste management of batteries,
  • sets waste battery collection rates, 
  • sets financial responsibility for programs, 
  • and put requirements on labelling, marking, and documentation.

However, the current Battery Directive has several key shortcomings; its incapacity to incorporate technological innovations and new usages of batteries, the unsatisfactory collection of waste batteries, and the insufficient recovery of materials. 

In December 2020, the European Commission proposed a new EU regulatory framework for batteries aimed at modernizing EU legislation on batteries.

Two of the objectives of the proposal are promoting a circular value chain and reducing environmental and social impact through all stages of the battery lifecycle. The proposal includes:  

  • A requirement for a recycled content declaration and mandatory minimum levels of recycled content for cobalt, lead, lithium and nickel.
  • Increased collection rate targets for waste portable batteries
  • Recycling efficiency targets for batteries and material recovery targets for cobalt, copper, lead, nickel and lithium. 
  • Supply chain due diligence obligations for economic operators that place rechargeable industrial batteries and EV batteries on the market.

At the time of writing, the details of the proposal are still discussed in the European Union. It is clear, however, that the proposed regulation will push the market towards significant improvements and a step in the direction towards sustainable batteries. However, the proposed recovery targets and recycling efficiencies indicate that it will still take some time before we have a truly sustainable battery value chain.

Dr Eva Fontes, 
Director of Transportation Technologies North Europe at Intertek

Eva Fontes received her PhD in Applied Electrochemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, and has during the past 20 years specialized in testing and advisory services related to battery technology.

Eva Fontes