Lithium batteries, heralded as a breakthrough in energy storage technology, have penetrated various sectors of South African society, from powering homes and businesses to enabling mobile networks. However, their widespread adoption has brought to light a pressing concern: the lack of efficient recycling solutions for these batteries.

Hector King, power division product manager at Dartcom, says: “Lithium batteries are a relatively new technology, so many lithium batteries in use in South Africa are only reaching end of life now. Little thought has been given to what should happen to these batteries when they reach end of life. In contrast with lead acid batteries, which are 98% recyclable, lithium batteries are not completely recyclable, and disposal is becoming a serious problem. There are virtually no disposal facilities locally and regulations around the disposal of lithium batteries are very rudimentary.”

King adds: “As lithium batteries reach end of life, or are vandalised at cell phone tower sites, disposal becomes a real problem. End of life and vandalised lithium batteries are already starting to stack up in storage facilities.  When EVs become more widespread across the country, disposing of the inevitable flood of old EV lithium batteries will compound the challenge within a matter of a few years.”

Zubair Arbee, Support & Services Manager at Dartcom, explains that lithium batteries contain small amounts of toxic materials like lithium, cobalt, nickel and manganese. Once an end-of-life battery has been disassembled and shredded, these materials make up a powder called ‘black mass’.  When the black mass reaches around 4 tons, it is shipped to specialised facilities in Europe for processing, as South Africa does not have the ability to process black mass.  

“This recycling process can be costly. As a result, many organisations simply stockpile their end-of-life or vandalised lithium batteries,” Arbee says. “As the number of used lithium batteries grows, there is an increasing risk of fire hazards and toxic chemicals seeping into groundwater.”

According to the World Bank Group South Africa & Southern Africa Battery Market & Value Chain Assessment Report, commercial scale recycling of large lithium batteries using hydrometallurgy is expected to be in place by 2023-24 in both Europe and the US.

Dartcom is moving to get ahead of the recycling problem, says King. “We are working to reduce the amount of lithium waste in the environment by refurbishing lithium batteries where possible. At cellphone masts, for example, thieves and vandals regularly damage lithium battery casings and components, making the lithium batteries appear to be unsalvageable. At our battery repair facility, we refurbish the batteries – replacing the casings and any damaged components, so the batteries can continue to be used as part of a circular economy.”