Conserving materials for the next mobility revolution

Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

GEM China 格林美 Conserving materials for the next mobility revolution

Overview

The challenge: increasing demand for electronics and the burgeoning electrical vehicle market produce a large volume of battery and e-waste

The solution: GemChina collects and recycles precious metals and other valuable materials from the discarded batteries and electronics

What makes it circular? Such an approach keeps important materials in use, avoiding environmental externalities associated with discarding and conserving the resources that would be needed to create virgin inputs

The benefits: avoided costs and environmental externalities from waste toxicity and virgin material processing

A leader in Chinese recycling

GEM Co. Ltd (GEMChina) is a publicly listed urban mining, resource recycling and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling business founded in 2001 in Shenzhen.

GEMChina are internationally recognised for their comprehensive industrial chains for resource collection and recycling across five categories:

  • Batteries
  • Cobalt, nickel, tungsten and carbide
  • Electronics
  • Scrap automobile parts
  • Waste residues, mud, and wastewater

In 2016, GEMChina processed a total of three million tonnes of waste, recycled 37 resource categories, avoided 7.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions, saving 14 million barrels of fossil fuel and 18 million acres of forests.

The growing importance of battery recycling

The Chinese government has set the target by 2020 to increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) by five million.

The country is on its way to reaching this ambitious target. In 2015, Didi, the biggest Chinese ride-hailing platform, had 90,000 registered EVs. By 2020, it plans to expand its electric fleet by more than tenfold to one million.

Beijing is also set to invest CNY 9 billion (USD 1.5 billion) to replace its entire fleet of 70,000 taxis with EVs. Shenzhen has already reached its target to fully electrify its entire bus fleet and have expanded its ambitions to include all taxis by 2020. These huge planned shifts in urban mobility systems create urgency around the issue of used EV batteries.

In 2015, China’s output of lithium-ion automotive batteries was 16.9 GWh, with demand projected to reach 125 GWh by 2020. Used batteries, if not properly managed, can pose huge problems to the environment as they can leach heavy metals and other toxic residues that could contaminate water and soil.

The government has been clamping down on private handlers who do not have stringent enough pollution control in place. At the same time companies that invest in technological innovation and centralised treatment are encouraged to take over, presenting an opportunity for remanufacturers and recyclers at scale.

GemChina has the highest used battery recycling capacity in China, processing more than 10% of the total waste battery or about 300,000 tonnes of waste battery per year. Their technology enables the recycling of scrapped lithium batteries from EVs, extracting the nickel, cobalt and other important resources, transforming them into materials used by battery producers like Samsung SDI and Ecopro Co Ltd.

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash
Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

Putting e-waste back in circulation

China is the world’s largest producer of consumer electronics and household appliances, accounting for almost 40% of global output. Meanwhile, China is also now one of the world’s largest markets for these products, due to its growing affluence and urbanisation. The high turnover of electronic goods has unwelcome consequences. Every year, some six million tonnes of electronic products are discarded, representing a huge loss in economic value as well as a risk to the environment.

GemChina has invested CNY 2 billion (USD 300 million) to build eight treatment centres around China, with a combined annual processing capacity of 1.2 million tonnes of used household appliances (15% of China’s total); 30,000 tonnes of circuit board (20% of China’s total); and 10,000 tonnes of waste plastics.

Speciality disassembly lines are in place for televisions, washing machines, LCD screens, small appliances like telephones and circuit boards.

Future prospects for recycling in China

The government has set a target of two million annual electrical vehicle sales by 2020 and seven million by 2025. Such growth could put China in a dominant position not only in the global EV industry, but also in EV-related businesses like battery recycling. It has been estimated that the battery recycling market could be worth CNY 31 billion (USD 5 billion) by 2023.

GemChina has taken the leading position in the high-tech recycling market in China. However, while recycling is important as a way of capturing materials, a higher value-conserving strategy, would focus at the design stage of electronics products including batteries, so that old products can be easily disassembled into components that can be easily reused.

Recognising this, the Chinese Ministry of Industry has urged the sector to introduce standardised designs that could facilitate this approach. Companies like GemChina could certainly play a role in this future prospect by feeding in expertise and experiences in dealing with end-of-life products.

Company info

  • HQ Location: Shenzhen
  • Date established: 2001
  • Number of staff: 5000
  • Number of assets: CNY 7 billion (USD 1 billion)
  • In 2016, GEM totally processed three million tonnes of waste
  • Runner up Circulars 2018