Recycle now: Warning of looming battery shortage

Industry experts have warned of the dangers of running out of raw materials for batteries used in technology if we fail to recycle used ones.

Failure to recycle old phones and laptops could potentially leave us short of raw materials for batteries to power new equipment, according to Waste, Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Ireland.

A surge in sales of devices such as laptops, drones, power tools and e-scooters has seen demand soaring for cobalt and lithium, which are essential for the production of rechargeable lithium batteries that power these devices.

Demand for e-cars, e-bikes, phones, smartwatches and fitness monitoring devices are also putting pressure on these two key materials.

“Lithium batteries are a key underpinning technology in the modern world”

In the first six months of 2020 alone, WEEE Ireland reported a 50pc increase in rechargeable lithium batteries entering the Irish market.

Global demand

“The global demand for cobalt has tripled in the past five years but there is a limited supply. We need to find ways to ensure we have sustainable reserves. There’s one simple way to do this and that’s recycling our old devices,” said Leo Donovan of WEEE Ireland.

“Many of us needlessly hold onto end-of-life gadgets that we’ve already replaced, such as phones and laptops, storing them in our attics, spare rooms, sheds and kitchen drawers.

“By doing so, we are unwittingly contributing to an ever-growing supply problem as many of the metals and compounds can’t be recovered to be re-used in the manufacture of new batteries.

“Lithium batteries are a key underpinning technology in the modern world.

“They power mobile devices vital to government, business, healthcare and society and are essential to the decarbonisation of transport, a key goal of the Climate Action Plan (CAP).

“By 2030, the Irish economy will be more dependent on the supply and efficiency of lithium batteries to power transport and communications if we are to meet the CAP and help to limit the effect of climate change,” Donovan said.

As Ireland and the world shifts towards greener technologies, there will be a massive increase in demand for cobalt and lithium.

Research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests there is not enough capability to mine and process the materials to meet that demand, which could reach 430,000 tonnes in the next decade – 1.6 times today’s capacity.

Separate research from the European Commission reveals the EU will need up to 18 times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030 for electric vehicle batteries and energy storage and almost 60 times more lithium and 15 times more cobalt in 2050, compared to the current supply.

Ireland can help to reverse this lack of supply by recycling old batteries responsibly, said Donovan.

“As consumers we can all play our part in increasing supply by recycling all of our end-of-life devices. This can be done by taking them to local authority recycling centres nationwide or any retail store that sells batteries.”

WEEE Ireland represents 96pc of the Irish battery industry and 74pc of the household electrical and electronic industry, who have a producer responsibility to organise and finance the environmental management of their products at their end of life.

Pictured at top: Jodie Purcell (12) from Dublin encouraging us all to recycle our end-of-life devices. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

By John Kennedy (

Published: 5 October, 2020