Eventually, the collection infrastructure, recovery processes and recycling facilities may be developed and scaled up to the task. There are plenty of old electronic devices cluttering up our drawers that could yield some metals, but it will take at least a decade or two for electric-vehicle batteries to be exhausted and become a sizable feedstock for recycling.
Indonesia supplies about half the world’s nickel, a crucial input for EV batteries. Ford and Volkswagen are investing billions of dollars into the local supply chain as a low-cost source that they can directly control. But international conservation group WWF has raised serious questions about destruction of the country’s rainforests in pursuit of the metal.
Another option is to mine nickel from the seabed.
Welcome back. The history of the mining industry is littered with environmental destruction, pollution and detrimental impacts on local populations. But the raw materials it provides—including nickel, cobalt and lithium—are crucial to the transition, particularly for electric vehicles. The global race to secure a supply of these critical materials is on, but can it be done sustainably?
A background conversation with one of the big global miners shattered my illusions. Their stark message: Recycling is the only green source because most deposits contain such low concentrations of metals and minerals that, while methods can be improved to minimize damage, recovering the materials will always be messy and destructive.
Most miners have been making efforts to clean up their practices. Some are even investing in recycling, but these aren’t likely to produce a meaningful supply any time soon.
Proponents argue it is less destructive than Indonesian sources, but environmental groups worry about damage to the relatively untouched deep sea ecosystem. Companies have been backing away and a number of countries are now calling for an international ban on the practice before it has really gotten started.
Russia also supplies nickel, but many westerners are wary of buying from the country after its forces invaded Ukraine. New Caledonia—a French island group in the Pacific—is another possible source, but there are concerns about environmental impact there too.