India does not have adequate legislations that can prevent illegal dumping of spent lithium batteries.
Electric vehicles (EV) are a part of the new normal as the global transportation sector undergoes a paradigm shift, with a clear preference towards cleaner and greener vehicles. Like its western counterparts and China, India has pushed the mandate for EVs as well, through schemes such as Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles (FAME) I and FAME II. EV sales in the country are expected to grow annually at a compound annual growth rate of 35 per cent till 2026, according to a market survey by news daily Economic Times. Initially, EVs were powered with lead-acid batteries. Lithium-ion batteries that include other chemical moieties like cobalt, graphite and nickel now form the heart of an EV. At the end of the battery lifespan, what remains is battery waste, comprising enormous amounts of chemicals such as cobalt, electrolytes, lithium, manganese oxide and nickel. India, at present, is woefully underprepared for the sheer volume of EV battery waste expected in the coming decade. Most of our e-waste is dumped in landfills. Further, we do not have adequate legislations that can prevent illegal dumping of spent lithium batteries. The most recent legislations — the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011, E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2016 and E-waste (Management) Amendment Rules, 2018 — evolved considerably in terms of the range of materials. They do not, however, include a cohesive set of rules for the safe disposal of EV batteries. Li-ion batteries, thus, find no mention, in any framework for end-of-life treatment or recycling.
This sets a dangerous precedent, as India can potentially become a lithium waste dumpsite for not just waste from domestic EVs, but also from import of spent batteries. These batteries constitute substances that — if not recycled or treated in a proper fashion — can cause harm to both the environment and humans. Further, lithium itself spontaneously reacts with moisture and can lead to major landfill explosions. Several nations are ahead of the curve and have mandated legislations that deal with battery recycling and treatment.
European Union Batteries Directive
The Batteries Directive — officially known as Directive 2006 / 66 / EC — was issued by the European Union. Its goal is to “minimise the negative impact of batteries and accumulators on the environment, contributing to the protection, preservation and improvement of the quality of the environment”. The Batteries Directive broke down the different stages of the process of collection and recycling of waste batteries and issued directions on how each of these must be performed. Batteries utilised in electric vehicles fall within their definition in Clause 6 of Article 3 and are termed ‘industrial batteries’. Article 5 of the directive states:
Member states that have manufacturers established on their territory shall promote research and encourage improvements in the overall environmental performance of batteries and accumulators throughout their entire life cycle as well as the development and marketing of batteries and accumulators that contain smaller quantities of dangerous substances or which contain less polluting substances, in particular as substitutes for mercury, cadmium and lead.
The directive, thus, is not a game plan that can be utilised until the situation worsens, as it invariably does in cases of technological development. It encapsulates an ideal of technological progress, not at the cost of the environment. Governments must take a proactive stance when it comes to the development of batteries that cause less harm to the environment, it stated.
Germany puts a legal obligation on producers to collect their products from the consumer and deposit them in containers managed by the GRS Batterien Foundation, set up by leading battery manufactures and the German Electrical and Electronics Industry Association in 1998. The obligation shifts to the GRS — that ensures collected waste is segregated and sorted according to electrochemical composition — leading to an efficient extraction of materials that can be recovered, along with reuse of materials like cadmium and lead for further battery production. The GRS, in its 2019 annual report, said a total collection rate of 76.1 per cent — higher than the statutory requirement of 45 per cent — was partly due to a successful communication strategy. This aimed to educate not just producers and active consumers, but also individuals who are future consumers.
The Japan Battery Recycling Centre (JBRC), established in 2004, is a producer-responsibility organisation that helps keep the process of recycling waste batteries going. Consumers and offices — that utilise technology running on batteries — discharge delivery to collection sites placed with retailers who register with the JBRC as co-operation shops for recycling. The collection sites facilitate segregation of the batteries by providing four different types of labels for four different types of batteries. The JBRC directs collection of the sorted waste appliances after a request by the retailer and forwarding agents that are usually collection and transportation businesses which transport waste to recyclers. The JBRC bears the cost of delivery and recycling, usually borne by the recyclers. The crushed residue waste is further segregated on reaching the recyclers and is either sold to users of recycled resources or transported to final disposal businesses.
The procedure in Japan, thus, successfully created an extended producer responsibility (EPR) mechanism that ensured manufacturers of batteries had a legal obligation of their products being safely recycled and disposed of. The successful creation of the JBRC as a collective organisation ensured multiple manufacturers could be brought together and made responsible for the products they created. Membership fees that every manufacturer must pay to the JBRC ensured there can be an efficient system of battery waste management within Japan. They ensure recycling costs and delivery costs do not become a hindrance to the recycling procedure. Additionally, the Law for the Promotion of Effective Utilization of Resources was passed in 2001 for regulating the recycling of rechargeable batteries.
Where does India lie?
The Indian e-waste legal regime underwent tremendous change over time and has only recently embraced EPR and collection of e-waste. Large quantities of EV battery waste presented a unique opportunity to nurture a domestic recycling industry, which is currently in its infancy.
Tata Chemicals Ltd, for example, commissioned a li-ion battery recycling plant in Maharashtra in 2019. The process of recycling can help recover up to half the valuable metals, including aluminium, cobalt, copper, lithium, manganese and nickel, which can then be used for secondary applications.
A lack of clear scientific guidelines and regulations tailor-made for li-ion batteries, however, leads to poor return of investments in setting up recycling units, as it is a capital-intensive initiative. In October 2019, the framing of a much-awaited recycling policy was proposed by the Union government. It is, however, still awaited. The first step to creating a circular economy for EV batteries is to expand our laws to include li-ion battery chemistries.