The growing popularity of electric bikes has raised a lot of exciting possibilities about the future of transportation, but it also presents a number of unique challenges. Chief among them is what to do with all those e-bike batteries when they eventually run out of juice. Rather than send them to a landfill, one major bike manufacturer is teaming up with a co-founder of Tesla to ensure those batteries have a second life.
Specialized, the third largest bike maker in the US based on market share, is partnering with a firm called Redwood Materials, which is run by Jeffrey “JB” Straubel, a co-founder and former chief technology officer of Tesla, to figure out a process for recycling the company’s e-bike batteries. Those batteries, which are typically attached to or integrated within the downtube of the bike, activate the motor when the cyclist is pedaling or uses a throttle.
The bikes are built to last a lifetime, but the batteries typically run out of power after four and six years, said Chris Yu, chief product officer at Specialized. “Generally, the bikes will long outlast the packs for the typical user,” Yu told The Verge. “And so it’s always been in the back of our minds: what do we do about them?”
Enter Redwood Materials. The Carson City, Nevada-based company was founded by Straubel in 2017 primarily as a recycler of electric car batteries. In addition to breaking down scrap from Tesla’s battery-making process with Panasonic, Redwood also recycles batteries from Nissan, Amazon, and others. Many of the batteries from those first-wave electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are just now reaching their end of life and are in need of recycling. Redwood promises that all of its recycling is done domestically — much of the e-waste in the US is shipped to developing countries for smelting — and with an eye toward reuse and recovery. Last year, Wired referred to the company as the “anti-gigafactory.”
This is how the partnership will work: Specialized will recover depleted e-bike batteries through its network of retail partners and then ship those batteries to Redwood’s facility in Northern Nevada. The first step will be to figure out how much of the battery is reusable, such as various connectors, wires, plastics, and other components. After that, Redwood will begin a chemical recycling process, in which it strips out and refines the relevant elements like nickel, cobalt, and copper. A certain percentage of that refined material can then be reintegrated into the battery-making process.
“Usually, there’s not very much else in there that’s very recyclable,” Straubel told The Verge. “But we strive to really minimize any separate waste streams.”
Specialized says that by the end of 2021, every one of its e-bike batteries will “have a pathway” to Redwood’s recycling facility. Yu explained that means making customers aware through their local Specialized retailer or via diagnostic notifications through the company’s smartphone app about the expected end-of-life date of their e-bike’s battery and what recycling opportunities are available to them. The company has been piloting this process, and so far, 100 percent of the battery packs it collects are going to Redwood.
With e-bike sales booming, there is expected to be a tsunami of dead batteries needing to be recycled in the decades to come — perhaps more so than from electric cars. More electric bikes were sold in Germany in 2020 than all of the electric cars sold in Europe. Over 547,000 e-bikes were sold in the Netherlands last year, or 54 percent more than the total number of cars, both gas and electric. According to Deloitte, 130 million e-bikes are expected to be sold globally between 2020 and 2023, making them the most popular battery-powered vehicle on the planet.
These data points — a faster product life and higher volume of sales — helped convince Straubel to team up with Specialized on this project. He also was friends with Specialized’s founder and CEO, Mike Sinyard, and helped set him up with a Tesla many years ago. But e-bikes, in addition to other lightweight electric vehicles like scooters and mopeds, are a sign of where things are headed for transportation. Straubel said he was surprised by how much of the e-waste that is processed for recycling is comprised of materials from e-bikes.
“It’s kind of a bellwether, I think, for passenger EVs,” he said, “and that’s been a really fascinating thing.”
E-waste recycling is a notoriously shady business, with companies sending raw materials overseas to developing nations that lack the infrastructure for safe processing. This has caused a growing ecological disaster. Straubel insists Redwood is different because it does all of its recycling domestically, not just the separation and aggregation processes. And he aims for maximum transparency, inviting all of his clients to come to the facility and inspect every inch of the process.
The gears are shifting in Washington in a way that could have a broad effect on what Specialized and Redwood are hoping to accomplish. A bill was just introduced in the House of Representatives that would incentivize the recycling of lithium-ion batteries, which are widely used by both electric cars and e-bikes. Another bill would offer a tax credit for anyone who purchases an e-bike. Public tax dollars are flowing into the industry in a way that could underscore the importance of Specialized and Redwood’s partnership.
“We’ve been working on this for a while. So it was a way to really get in front of it,” Specialized CEO Mike Sinyard told The Verge. “People who buy an electric car, but even more, people who buy an electric bike really care about that. And we care deeply about that too.”
Straubel agrees, saying it’s a question that’s on the minds of the people who buy these products: what will happen to it when it eventually runs out of power? “They want to make sure that the solution isn’t worse than the problem,” he said. “But to me, this is a story of optimism because these batteries are very highly recyclable, with the right process and method for doing it.”