The EU is set to overhaul the rules governing batteries following adoption this month of a regulation that covers their entire life cycle, from the mining of raw materials to recycling. The EU battery law aims for batteries produced in the EU to be the greenest in the world, and replaces a previous battery directive from 2006.

The new law, which will have immediate effect, applies to all batteries including all waste portable batteries; electric vehicle batteries; rechargeable industrial batteries with a capacity above two kilowatt-hours; starting, lightning and ignition batteries; and batteries for light means of transport such as electric bikes and e-scooters. All such batteries will now have to be accompanied by a compulsory carbon footprint declaration and label. Batteries in appliances will need to be designed so consumers can easily remove and replace them themselves. By 2027, batteries in handheld devices like smartphones must be removable and replaceable by the consumer.

The EU battery law also sets new targets for the collection of battery waste. By 2023, 45% of portable batteries will need to be collected, 63% by 2027 and 73% by 2030. Half of lithium will need to be recovered from waste batteries by 2027, followed by 80% in 2031. By 2027, 90% of cobalt, copper, lead and nickel will need to be collected, followed by 95% by 2031. From 2031, batteries will need to contain minimum levels of recycled content.

Visit Energy Monitor's new Critical Mineral Tracker: Track production data and forecasts for lithium, cobalt nickel and copper, plus reserves, visualised against demand.

Speaking after the final adoption by national governments in the EU Council, Spain’s Ecological Transition Minister Teresa Ribera, who presided over the vote after Spain took over the Council’s rotating presidency on 1 July, said the EU battery law will be “key to the decarbonisation process and the EU’s shift towards zero-emission modes of transport”.

“The new rules will promote the competitiveness of European industry and ensure new batteries are sustainable and contribute to the green transition,” she added.

A number of business partnerships have been launched recently around battery recycling and material recovery and reuse, including one from Iberdrola, Glencore and FCC, and a new technological solution from Aqua Metals.

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Global competition

Batteries are becoming big business and there has been a surge in battery production globally because they are needed for electric vehicles. The European Commission, which proposed the new EU battery law in 2020, says global demand for batteries will increase by 14 times between now and 2030, and the EU is expected to make up 17% of that demand.

However, the EU’s battery market remains small compared with competitors like the US and China, and there has been concern that the EU could replace its fossil fuel dependency on Russia with a battery and raw material dependency on China with the energy transition. There has also been intense concern that the battery production subsidies in US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act will mean unfair competition against European companies. Batteries imported into the EU will also have to meet the new standards, and lawmakers hope that this will set a global standard as well as give European producers an advantage.

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Centre-left Spanish MEP Achille Variati, who guided the EU battery law through the European Parliament, noted that this is the first time a circular economy law covers the entire life cycle of a product.

“Batteries will be well-functioning, safer and easier to remove,” he said. “Our overall aim is to build a stronger EU recycling industry, particularly for lithium, and a competitive industrial sector as a whole, which is crucial in the coming decades for our continent’s energy transition and strategic autonomy. These measures could become a benchmark for the entire global battery market.”

The regulation has been welcomed by European battery industry association RECHARGE, which said in a statement that it will help both competitiveness and sustainability: “Carbon intensity and due diligence provisions have the potential to not only prevent underperforming batteries from entering the EU market, but to truly work towards the climate-neutrality and sustainability objectives of the EU.”

EU battery law: better for consumers and workers

Consumer groups have cheered the law, which was adopted with ‘yes’ votes from 25 of the EU’s 27 countries (Bulgaria and Slovenia abstained over concerns about compliance costs). “With batteries increasingly powering consumer products, from laptops and smartphones to e-bikes and electric vehicles, more sustainable batteries need to become the norm,” said Monique Goyens, director-general of the European consumers group BEUC. “Consumers keep reporting batteries defects as a major concern, especially for electronics such as smartphones, so designing batteries that last longer would save consumers frustration and money.”

Read more from this author: Dave Keating

The EU battery law also has new rules designed to prevent child labour. Large operators must verify the source of raw materials used for batteries placed on the market and prove they were not sourced using child labour or abusive working conditions. Lawmakers had sought to do something about the issue since a 2016 report by Amnesty International found that 35,000 child labourers are working at cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to make batteries for smartphones.

The newly required verification must be certified by a third party, in line with OECD guidelines.