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Cobalt and lithium recycling low despite climate change concerns

Extracting cobalt and lithium from old products and infrastructure is essential to heading off predicted metal shortfalls, empowering clean energy transitions and reducing risk of human exploitation.

Despite these benefits, lithium and cobalt recycling rates are low. This is according to a study released by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).

Sustainability and Second Life: The Case for Cobalt and Lithium Recycling notes that renewable technologies (such as electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines) has increased demand for cobalt and lithium. However, global supplies of both minerals are not projected to meet demand, with research forecasting shortfalls in the coming decade.

Transparency needed

Recycling conducted in a responsible and transparent way could help head off these shortfalls while reducing pressure on mining communities vulnerable to exploitation. However, recycling rates remain low due to a lack of transparency in recycling supply chains; manufacturers purchasing substitute minerals due to high prices for raw cobalt and lithium; and inefficient collection of cobalt and lithium from existing infrastructure, to name a few.

“It’s a balance. We have to meet demand for a green energy shift while protecting human rights,” said Clare Church, Research Officer at IISD and lead author of the report. “Recycling can play a key role in achieving these goals, and we hope our study prompts action to drive those rates up.”

The study’s recommendations include:

  • Increased transparency and responsible sourcing along primary and recycling supply chains;
  • Enhancing the eco-design of products containing lithium and cobalt;
  • Raising consumer awareness regarding current collection and recycling schemes;
  • New or revised investments to improve collection infrastructure, technology development and knowledge creation; and
  • Clearly designating the actors responsible and liable for recycling materials

“Recycling has long been a central tenet in circular business models and sustainable development,” said Church. “Adopting recycling in the mining sector and in supply chains is essential to ensure the transition to a low-carbon economy is responsible and sustainable for the longer term.”