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E-battery recycling becoming focal point with brands

Published May 14, 2021
Specialized's union with Redwood Materials generates attention.

A version of this article ran in the May issue of BRAIN.

FORT MYERS, Fla. (BRAIN) — In late March, Ed Benjamin completed a report on e-bike import numbers for 2020. The eCycleElectric senior managing director expected to find 130-150 importers. The number was closer to 400.

Which equates to a lot more lithium-ion batteries eventually needing to be discarded and replaced. While battery recycling in e-bike hotbeds Europe and China is well established, the U.S. is still figuring out how to handle the eventual flood, with the average e-bike battery lasting between 3-7 years.

Specialized Bicycle made news in March when a report leaked about a partnership with Redwood Materials to develop a battery recycling program through its retailers. Redwood Materials happens to be co-founded and run by JB Straubel, who also co-founded electric car company Tesla — anything involving Tesla makes for great headlines in the tech media.

It's a union that has caught the attention of and created hope for U.S. e-bike proponents like Benjamin, who is also the chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association.

"So far as I know, recovery of the materials in a lithium battery is not yet an economically successful process," Benjamin said. "But I feel certain humans will figure this out, and stop wasting these useful materials. Perhaps the partnership between Big S (Specialized) and Redwood Materials will be this needed success."

A Specialized spokesperson told BRAIN in April it won't comment on the program until it "has a clear direction before it fully turns on. While the announcement itself is a huge step forward for the industry, we're just starting to get into the thick of it. As you can imagine, there are many moving parts with recycling efforts, and it will be vital that everything is in place before communicating a plan to riders and retailers."

Since the news broke, Specialized has been downplaying the program to keep riders from bringing batteries to retailers with the expectation of having them recycled, the spokesperson said.

Redwood details program

Redwood Materials — started in 2017 in Carson City, Nevada, to domestically recycle electric car batteries — did comment on the program. A spokesperson there said it will receive and process Specialized e-bike batteries in the U.S. that are shipped from Specialized distribution centers. The battery collection eventually will originate from Specialized retailers.

"Specialized's ultimate goal is re-use, and Redwood will help recover materials that can be brought back into manufacturing and also help evaluate ways to change the design processes for better recyclability at the end of life," a Redwood Materials spokesperson told BRAIN in April. "By the end of 2021, every Specialized bike battery in the United States will have a pathway to Redwood."

Redwood Materials can recover about 95%-98% of a battery — nickel, cobalt, lithium, and copper — and return those raw materials to battery and electric vehicle manufacturers.

"In just a few short years, we've become the largest lithium-ion battery recycler in North America, receiving 60 tons a day or 20,000 tons of batteries a year," the Redwood Materials spokesperson said.

Mike Fritz — chief technology officer for Human Powered Solutions, a consulting group for micromobility industry — said the Specialized program provides a road map for the rest of the industry to follow.

"I sincerely hope that Redwood Materials actively promotes its services to other e-bike manufacturers, importers, and distributors in North America," Fritz said. "Our industry is good for the environment in so many ways. Let's keep it that way."

The Redwood Materials spokesperson said Specialized "will make these learnings on logistics available to the entire bike and micromobility industries and plan to roll out to other markets in 2022."

Bryant Bainbridge, former Specialized director of corporate responsibility, said expanding the program to other brands is critical.

"Specialized continues to show leadership on issues of sustainability in the bicycle business, but what will make this a bigger story is other brands joining in the effort," Bainbridge said. "Sustainability is not about trade secrets or competitive advantage and only works when the principal players in an industry agree on a strategy and join forces to implement it. I would love to see Trek and Giant in the mix making it easier for customers and retailers to ensure that batteries are taken back and recycled properly rather than inadvertently finding their way into landfill."

Trek nears decision on partner

A Trek spokesperson told BRAIN in April the brand is close to naming an e-bike battery recycling partner and expects to have a decision made by the end of the year. One option is to have consumers bring their batteries to a Trek retailer. "We're looking into using our own facilities as collection sites, but electric bike batteries have some material concerns that dictate how they're handled," the spokesperson said.

Giant said it participates in the PeopleForBikes Sustainability Working Group task force, a group of 20 members focused on providing insight and progress toward a more sustainable industry.

"This support will focus on an industry-wide recycling and safety program that will allow us to learn and implement ways to offer our customers and retailers a reasonable and responsible eco-friendly/convenient choice," a Giant spokesperson told BRAIN.

Giant also is closely following and supporting state and national legislation on improving battery recycling. One such bill, the Battery and Critical Mineral Recycling Act of 2020, would incentivize battery recycling research, development, and demonstration projects. The program also would extend to state and local governments for battery collection, recycling, and reprocessing programs.

The building momentum of battery recycling comes at the right time, for Benjamin worries that the expanding e-bike market likely will contract in the near future, leading to many e-bikes — and batteries — being discarded.

"Each importer is essentially a brand manager, and their product often, but not always, has a battery that is unique to their bike," Benjamin said. "A battery that will just plug in and work today usually comes only from the company that sold the bike originally. ... When we think about the implications for batteries, it says to me that the field of brands is far too large and will be dramatically reduced in the near future. Many of today's bike models and brands will become orphans with no brand manager to stock or acquire replacement batteries."

In Europe, e-bike retailers must have a contract with a company to recover old batteries and safely dispose of them, but Benjamin specifically noted China's recycling program and its use of lead-acid batteries. With nearly 300 million e-bikes in service, most use lead-acid batteries, which last only about a year. While extremely toxic, these batteries are subjected to a well-established recycling program that was established about 20 years ago, Benjamin said.

"Lithium-based batteries, however, are not so easily recycled," Benjamin said. "They last longer, so we have not yet seen the expected tsunami of old batteries. But it is coming."

Specialized Turbo SC battery.
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike, From the Magazine

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