A business case for African battery recycling
Closing the Loop

A business case for African battery recycling

Closing the Loop, Amsterdam, completed a pilot project with goal of shipping lithium-ion batteries from Nigeria to Europe to be recycled.

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October 8, 2020

This year, a pilot project was able to successfully ship lithium-ion batteries from Nigeria to Europe for recycling. Closing the Loop, Amsterdam, partners with electronic scrap collection networks in Africa to recycle those materials. For the pilot, Closing the Loop wanted to ship lithium-ion batteries sourced specifically from Nigeria to Europe in a way that was safe.

Closing the Loop released a white paper on the project looking into the opportunity for urban mining for end-of-life cellphone batteries and at how a new circular business model can facilitate this.

“The ability to source materials from old electronics can have immense impacts, including a reduced need for mining materials, particularly conflict minerals,” the white paper states. “The main learnings presented in this paper involve the development of a collection network, incentive creation and collaboration. The results of the pilot project are important for learning the whole industry.”

The white paper reports that the issue of electronic scrap ending up as waste in low- and middle-income countries is becoming a bigger problem. The report says e-scrap generation is growing in those countries with few options for recycling and repair.

Call2Recycle, Atlanta, served as a consultant on this project.

“We shared some of our experiences in the difficulty of moving batteries across borders,” says Carl Smith, president at Call2Recycle. “For years, we’ve had to deal with that issue, not just with lithium-ion batteries but also nickel-cadmium, in moving them to Japan, Korea, France, Canada, etc., with how expensive it is and bureaucratic it is and how it proves to be such an impediment to increasing recycling rates.”

The pilot project started in late 2017, and collection of lithium-ion batteries began in 2018 and ran through April of this year, when the batteries were received by a recycler in Europe. Closing the Loop’s white paper indicates challenges in the pilot project:

  • collecting enough batteries for a reasonable pilot;
  • the danger of storing and shipping lithium-ion batteries across borders;
  • following Basel Convention notification procedures with the lithium-ion batteries; and
  • the expenses associated with safely shipping lithium-ion batteries across borders.

Closing the Loop says it was successful in its pilot project. Through the project, 5,000 kilograms (or about 11,000 pounds) of batteries were sourced and shipped from Nigeria to the port of Antwerp, Belgium. Those batteries are estimated to contain at least 1,250 kilograms (or about 2,750 pounds) of cobalt. Closing the Loop reports that the batteries were received by a recycler to be recycled back into materials that will be used for new batteries eventually. Additionally, the project involved the informal sector in Nigeria in the collection process, leading to more income generation for the local community.

Closing the Loop adds that three of its customers were eager to be involved in the pilot project and contributed to covering the costs associated with it. However, the required administration and documentation for shipments related to this pilot project were costly and complicated, and Closing the Loop says that was one obstacle for the pilot.

“Globally, our hope is that [this pilot project] might bring some recognition to some of the regulatory obstacles to achieving battery recycling,” Smith of Call2Recycle says, adding that “uniform mechanisms” are needed to receive and process information to expedite the movement of batteries. “Every place in the world needs their own sufficient processor to achieve any kind of recycling rate. Hopefully, in terms of the Basel Convention, it will lead to improvements as far as the management of this waste.”