The surprising environmental cost of Lithium-ion batteries

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Nearly everyone all over the world has purchased a phone. However, it is rare that any of us stop and consider the environmental impact that producing that phone has. Lithium-ion batteries, which power most phones, cause significant impacts on the environment. In this article, we explain what these impacts are, what you can do to help, and what the future might be for phone batteries.

What are lithium-ion batteries?

The vast majority of phones use lithium ion batteries. These are rechargeable batteries that have a higher density than other types of battery, such as nickel-cadmium batteries. Due to this higher density, the batteries take up less space. For this reason, companies such as Apple prefer these batteries.

What makes them so bad for the environment?

Unfortunately, the method used to extract lithium comes with many negative environmental costs. Mining 1 tonne of lithium uses around 500,000 gallons of water, an astronomical amount. To add to this problem, lithium is mainly located in arid regions of the world where there are salt flats. As a result the use of water for mining is even more detrimental for the locals. The world’s main source of lithium is a place in Chile called Sala de Atacama. This region uses 65% of its water supply for lithium mining. 

Lithium mining shown using large amounts of water. Lithium is used to make lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium mining (source: Forbes)

The 35% of water not consumed by the extraction is likely contaminated by chemicals used in the process. Highly toxic chemicals are released through leaching, spillages, or through the air, and cause damage to the environment. This can include harming eco-systems, or even killing fish in the waters that have been contaminated as a result of lithium mining. 

How we can limit the damage caused by lithium mining:

  • Keep your batteries at room temperature.
    • Heat can be highly damaging for lithium batteries. Leaving a lithium battery out in temperatures of above 25˚C can reduce the battery life as the rate of chemical reactions inside the battery increases. 
    • To prevent this, try to avoid charging your phone in a hot car, or charging any battery devices in high heats.
  • Recycling lithium batteries.
    • Currently, lithium batteries are not very easily recyclable. However, research increasingly suggests that it will be easier to recycle these batteries in the future.
    • As soon as these batteries are made more easily recyclable, it will become more viable to use products that use lithium batteries

If you want to learn more about how you can help our environment, check out our Advice page and Carbon Footprint Calculator.

Examples of lithium-ion batteries posing a threat:

In 2019, Apple were forced to recall some of their 15-inch MacBook Pro’s because they wanted to replace the batteries. As a result, many airlines refused to have people carry these laptops on board with them, as they posed a fire hazard to the aircraft.

The world is also running out of its supply of lithium. We may be forced to look for alternatives soon! Some researchers have discovered that zinc ion batteries could perform the same or a similar service to lithium ion batteries. These would be cheaper than lithium. Research has also shown that more importantly zinc batteries may be safer environmentally. It is likely that many manufacturers will be seriously considering this as an option in years to come.

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