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The Environmental Impact of Lithium-Ion Batteries Revealed

How are lithium-ion batteries impacting the environment and will investing in lithium-ion technology help your sustainability initiatives or hinder them?

We all leave footprints, but when it comes to the environment, it’s not always immediately clear whether we’re wearing size eights, nines, tens, or a pair of clown shoes.

The problem is that our environmental impacts extend across the supply chain, so while things might appear green on-site or around the office, the story is often decidedly murkier when you start looking into the original sourcing, manufacturing stages, and logistics associated with your operations. Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are a clear example of this.

In this week’s article, explore this topic with us to determine exactly how the manufacturing and use of Li-ion batteries, often promoted as sustainable solutions, are impacting our world and how you can use them in a way that keeps your environmental footprint small. 

Click to download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for Li-ion batteries.

The environmental benefits of lithium-ion batteries

Li-ion batteries have become increasingly popular in recent years due to their efficiency, their longevity, and our collective demand for the small, remote devices and electric vehicles they typically power. And on the surface, their environmental credentials look good.

  • These batteries have a longer lifespan than traditional batteries, meaning fewer resources will be needed to produce replacements.

  • They’re much more energy-efficient than traditional batteries, which means that they require less energy to charge and discharge. This, in turn, reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to generate electricity.

  • Additionally, the use of Li-ion batteries in electric vehicles can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, contributing to improved air quality.

But look a little closer at where they’ve come from, and you’ll quickly see they're not without an environmental impact. The process of extracting lithium can be harmful to the environment, and the disposal of these batteries can also pose a public health risk. 

The environmental cost of lithium-ion batteries

The production of these batteries involves the extraction of lithium, which is a finite resource often found in areas with fragile ecosystems. Because of this, the process of mining for lithium can quickly lead to deforestation, soil erosion, and water contamination.

“More than half the current lithium production, which is very water intensive, takes place in regions blighted by water shortages that are likely to get worse due to global heating.” The Guardian, ‘Revealed: how US transition to electric cars threatens environmental havoc

The operational risk of Li-ion fires extends beyond human health and safety to that of the environment. A Li-ion fire releases highly toxic, flammable gases, vapours, and smoke, with potentially devastating impacts on local wildlife. Those chemicals can poison water supplies. The fire itself has the potential to destroy large swathes of forest/woodland.  

Even the disposal of these batteries can also be problematic as they contain toxic chemicals that can leak into the soil and water, causing harm to wildlife and humans alike. We cover the safe disposal of Li-ion batteries in detail in this article, but it’s important to note here that the environmental footprints of businesses not handling their waste batteries in an environmentally and socially responsible way go much deeper than they might first appear.

The culprits: what’s toxic?  

One of the main culprits is cobalt, a metal that’s used in the cathode of the battery. Cobalt can cause respiratory problems, lung cancer, and other health issues if inhaled by humans or animals. Another toxic chemical found in Li-ion batteries is nickel, which can cause skin irritation, gastrointestinal distress, and even heart damage.

Can lithium-ion batteries be recycled?

Li-ion batteries are actually recyclable, which means that they can be reused and repurposed at end of life, reducing waste and supporting a circular economy.

If Li-ion batteries play a significant role in your operations, it’s important to recycle them at the end of their lifecycle to support the sustainability of your operations. From a compliance perspective, this can also help to keep you on the right side of environmental legislation.

How are Li-ion batteries impacting your footprint?

To stay compliant with sustainability directives and get a more accurate picture of the size of your operation’s environmental footprint, look both forwards and backwards.

Looking back across the supply chain:

  • Where have your Li-ion batteries come from?
  • Is the manufacturer operating responsibly?
  • Is there clear visibility/transparency over the lithium’s source?
  • What is the impact of any mining operations on the local people/environment?
  • Can the manufacturer provide any traceability information?

And looking forwards to how you dispose of your Li-ion batteries:

  • Is there an accountable person in place to manage your battery disposal?
  • Has this person had the appropriate training?
  • Are records/due diligence being kept to evidence safe, responsible disposal?
  • Does your disposal process involve battery recycling?

Securing more than just your batteries

Li-ion storage solutions protect more than your people and your premises from the risks associated with thermal runaway. Fire-rated with built-in suppression systems and hazardous gas extraction, these specialist units are designed to control Li-ion fires.

  • The fire itself will be unable to escape the immediate confines of the unit, preventing its spread to the local environment.
  • The hazardous chemicals released in the smoke and other vapours are neutralised by the extraction system before they can reach the atmosphere. 
  • In the case of faulty batteries leaking, the escaping chemicals will be contained, stopping them from polluting soil or nearby water sources. 

Related read: Safely Storing Lithium-Ion Batteries: Why Do You Need Specialist Storage?

Weighing up the environmental impact of lithium-ion batteries

Overall, lithium-ion batteries offer a sustainable solution to our energy needs, and their environmental benefits are just one of the many reasons why they are a smart choice for powering our future. But they should not be talked about as entirely green solutions — the truth is considerably more grey and requires consideration in the context of your operations.

If you make extensive use of Li-ion batteries, what are the environmental impacts across the supply chain? Understanding this will give you a good idea of the real impact of your operations — and if you can take additional action to help offset those impacts. 

When was the last time you measured the impact of Li-ion batteries on your environmental footprint — and who is it stepping on?

To download your copy of our four-step risk assessment checklist for lithium-ion batteries, click here.