The Bike Industry Has a Battery-Recycling Program for E-Bikes Now
Some of the biggest brands will work together to pay for consumer battery recycling
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E-bikes are sometimes touted as a major (albeit underappreciated) tool in the fight against climate change. But just like any electric motor, the lithium batteries that power them are a problem. Their production, especially the requisite lithium and cobalt, is a resource-intensive and dirty process. What’s more, their life span is limited, and disposing of them is a challenge because chucking lithium batteries in the trash is dangerous—and even illegal in some states. Typically, getting rid of them involves a trip to your county’s hazardous-waste disposal site, where you’re charged a fee to have them thrown away.
That will change in 2022, thanks to a new industry-wide program specifically targeting e-bike batteries, spearheaded by the nonprofit advocacy group People for Bikes. Essentially, a group of bike brands intend to pool money to pay for consumer battery recycling—and not a moment too soon. As e-bike sales in the U.S. accelerate, “we know as an industry we need to do better on sustainability and climate issues,” noted Jenn Dice, president of People for Bikes, in a statement that touted the e-bike battery recycling initiative as a major step forward.
The key is a partnership with Call2Recycle, a battery-recycling nonprofit with deep experience in the job. The company has recycled over 140 million pounds of batteries in the past 25 years, according to its CEO, Leo Raudys.
Call2Recycle will serve as the initiative’s coordinator, building a network of battery drop-off locations from the nation’s roughly 3,000 independent bike shops. After collection, the organization will send the batteries to its processing partners, four of which are domestic and two of which are foreign—one in South Korea and one in Belgium. (The consortium brands are funding the recycling service, which will be free to riders; however, consumers will still have to pay for replacement batteries.) One of those national partners, Redwood Materials, previously ran a pilot recycling program for Specialized. The consortium plans to start operations in February and launch a consumer-direct mail-in recycling option next summer.
“Initially, individual brands explored the potential to pursue e-bike battery recycling themselves, but the logistics and costs were prohibitive,” says Ash Lovell, People for Bike’s electric-bicycle policy director. Several years ago, the organization started talking with member brands about an industry-wide approach. This new program is the result.
The impact could be significant. People for Bikes estimates that around 12 million e-bikes will be sold in the U.S. between now and 2030. The average e-bike battery has a capacity of 500 to 1,000 recharge cycles. With average use patterns, that comes out to a life span of roughly three to five years. Over the next decade, that could mean as many as 24 to 36 million batteries. This industry e-bike battery-recycling program will take those batteries and process the raw materials into new ones. Redwood Materials says it can reclaim between 95 and 98 percent of the materials in a battery.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this endeavor is the deep roster of industry companies that have signed on: more than 20 bike makers, from traditional favorites like Giant, Specialized, and Trek to some of the most prominent players in the e-bike-specific segment, like Pedego, RadPower, and Super73. Motor brands have also stepped up for inclusion: Bosch, Shimano, and Yamaha are all members. And if you live near one of REI’s 168 stores, you’re set; it’s a member, too. Call2Recycle’s Raudys thinks they can add more. “We know there are as many as 75 (e-bike) brands in the market,” he said. While getting all of them involved might be a challenge, “we are confident we can obtain participation from 85 to 90 percent.”
The bike industry is notoriously fractious; part of the reason there are 21 bottom-bracket standards is that no one can agree on a single best approach. While getting dozens of brands and hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of shops to buy in as partners might seem impossible, the fact that so many important companies have already signed on is promising.
The new program, and particularly the timing of its announcement, is also auspicious in another way: Congress is currently putting the finishing touches on Build Back Better, a keystone policy goal of the Biden administration and the Democratic Party. One small part of that bill is a federal tax credit for e-bike purchases. The bill faces an uncertain path, and over intense negotiations the scope of the e-bike tax credit has changed several times. But it continues to be included in the bill. Now, with its new program, the bike industry is sending lawmakers—and cyclists—the message that it’s a motivated and responsible partner in the fight against climate change.