Christian M. 7 min read

Black mass recycling

When we talk about ‘black mass’, we’re not referring to the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster nor the religious ceremony of satanic cults.

In a commercial recycling context, ‘black mass’ is the latest valuable commodity from the circular economy. It’s made of crushed and shredded leftovers from the battery industry that contain the right metals in the right proportions, leaving market analysts speculating about an imminent ‘black rush’.

This article explains everything you need to know about this ‘black gold’, including how the UK is falling behind in the race to keep this material from gravitating to China’s massive battery recycling industry.

💡 Contents:

Battery waste in the UK

The world is electrifying, and batteries are at the centre of it. Lithium-ion batteries are extensively used in consumer electronics and, more recently, in electric vehicles (EVs).

These batteries may have a life span of as little as two years for lower-end smartphones and up to twenty years for EVs (including a secondary use as home storage for solar panel systems). Unfortunately, once spent, these batteries can no longer be recharged, becoming a problematic and hazardous waste that needs to be managed.

Currently, most EV batteries are being manufactured or used in the increasing number of brand-new EVs churning into UK roads, so they will only become a significant source of waste in a few years. However, this is not the case with millions of consumer electronics (along with their batteries) already ending up in UK landfills despite regulations prohibiting their disposal, creating significant issues.

Turning battery waste into ‘black mass’

Retailers are responsible for taking back used electronics, and many councils now have designated bins for them. While some are legally (and illegally) exported abroad, some are now being dismantled, crushed, and shredded into a new product called ‘black mass’, with the first purpose-built facility in the UK opening in 2023.

This product has received considerable attention because it contains high concentrations of the principal metals necessary to manufacture new batteries: lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese. Unlike procuring the metals individually from various mineral ore supply chains, it’s an all-in-one solution.

There are also different kinds of ‘black mass’ as the proportion of metals depends on what kind of batteries were fed at the start of the process. Black mass from consumer electronics will have higher proportions of cobalt and lithium from LCO cathodes, while black mass from EV batteries will have higher nickel and manganese concentrations from their NMC or NCA cathodes.

In any case, this is giving rise to a whole new intricate supply chain.

Black mass: The rise of a new commodity

Mineral deposits are becoming increasingly depleted and expensive to mine, and many key metal resources (e.g. lithium, cobalt, nickel) are within countries with questionable human rights records, rampant corruption, and poor environmental oversight.

In contrast, refined metals sourced from urban metal recycling offer a much-improved solution. Not only does it reduce waste going to landfills and recover useful materials, but the metal concentrations of waste products like ‘black mass’ are competitive with those of refined/extracted products from the mining industry:

MetalBlack massExtracted/Refined products
Lithium2-6%0.1-0.2% (Brine)
Cobalt5-20%5-15% (Concentrate)
Nickel5-15%10-20% (Concentrate)
Copper3-10%20-30% (Concentrate)
Aluminum1-5%20-30% (Ore)
Iron1-5%60-65% (Ore)
Manganese2-10%44-68% (Concentrate)

Source: AquaMetals

Black mass price discovery

Black mass is emerging as a commodity product because of its attractive value proposition: Environmentally sound metal extraction that contributes to a circular economy. Mentions of ‘black mass’ in corporate earnings reports have grown significantly, including those of commodity trading giant ‘Glencore’ and chemical company ‘BASF’.

There is already an underground bidding war between battery manufacturers who want to secure future black mass contracts from these two firms, who dominate the European black mass market.

Market insight companies like Benchmark Minerals Intelligence, Fastmarkets, and S&P Global have already launched regular price assessments of the material, forging its route into a publically tradable commodity like gold, energy or livestock.

Below are the prices of two types of Chinese black mass products between 2020 and 2023, showing prices between 6,000 and 30,000 US dollars per tonne, which is comparable to commodities like refined copper, nickel, tin and cocoa seeds (the raw ingredient for chocolate).

Black mass price benchmarks for 2020 – 2023. Source: Benchmark Minerals

China: a black hole for black mass

Britain, Europe, and North America are turning old batteries of all kinds into ‘black mass’ but remain unable to process them further into refined metals because of a lack of battery recycling infrastructure and technology.

Instead, most of this valuable commodity is being exported to China because it is much cheaper to export, process, and re-import the refined metals back for manufacturing rather than doing this entire process domestically. Chinese, South Korean and Indian companies have developed the technologies and built the facilities to dissolve the batteries in acid and produce the refined metal products needed for batteries and other electronic components.

China’s dogged investment in the EV industry over the last decade is now reaping the rewards, while the rest of the world (bar South Korea) is sidelined, watching its growing tonnages of this valuable raw material gravitate towards the EV giant.

💡 Geopolitics: China’s dominance of battery supply chains, including majority stakes in mines mining critical metals like Lithium and Cobalt, ports, and other transport infrastructure, is seen as a growing geopolitical risk by the West, which has also been left on the backfoot of the imminent ‘black mass gold rush’.

Keeping ‘black gold’ at home

Many of the ‘black mass’ producing nations. including the UK, are beginning to fight tooth and nail to keep this valuable resource from gravitating abroad:

EU: Battery Regulations

For example, The EU has implemented regulations to significantly restrict the export of black mass to enhance its circular economy and secure valuable battery raw materials within the bloc. The new EU Battery Regulation, adopted in June 2023, stipulate that by no later than December 31, 2031:

  • EV batteries sold in the bloc must source a proportion of its metals from recycling (To incentivise recycling facilities within the EU).
  • EU recyclers must achieve ambitious material recovery rates (To ensure they can compete with their Asian counterparts).

Additionally, there’s an attempt to classify black mass as ‘hazardous waste’ to make exporting it more challenging. Other EU politicians are proposing an outright ban on black mass exports outside of the bloc. Other regulations, like the Critical Raw Materials Act, are designed to fast-track new metal recycling projects.

US: Tax credits & incentives

Following the adage: “The EU regulates, the US innovates”, America is encouraging more US-based metal recyclers who can process black mass by throwing money at it. The Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, includes provisions that favour the use of domestically recycled materials in manufacturing processes by offering tax credits.

The Department of Energy has invested heavily in the US battery recycling industry, with federal loans totalling USD 2.3B given to Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle.

India: Tech development

While India is lagging in EV adoption, its colossal population’s adoption of everyday electronics like smartphones and laptops means that they are generating huge tonnages of battery waste, which can, in turn, be used to make a different quality of black mass.

Their burgeoning local battery manufacturing sector will also require the raw materials necessary to keep growing without reliance on China.

Companies such as Lohum are growing to become industry giants. They can process 20,000 tonnes of battery scrap (mainly from consumer electronics) and produce 10,000 tonnes of black mass every year, nearly 70% of India’s output.

Estimates have put India’s lithium-ion battery capacity at 500 GWh by 2035, and there is arguably more than enough domestic black mass to power this burgeoning economy. Not only this but their technologies will likely be needed by recycling facilities in the EU, which are still lagging behind the recovery rates required by the new regulations.

“We do believe Lohum has one of the best lithium yields in the market [~85%]. From what we’ve seen, China tends to be 70% plus; Korea seems to be 55-70%; and the rest of the world is operating at less than 50%. This is what is happening at an industrial scale”. Source: Fastmarket.

China: Building deeper moats

China, already dominating the market, continues building taller walls around its insular market. In 2022, China accounted for 60% of global EV sales, with 6.2 million vehicles entering circulation. This is double that of the EU and US combined, meaning that China will become the leading producer of black mass anyway.

As a result, they have already implemented policies to ensure a closed-loop system where all spent batteries can be fully recycled in-house to produce even more batteries.


The UK remains “in consultation” regarding updating its regulations on EV battery recycling to prevent the rapid escape of black mass to its main export destination: China. Current waste regulations and devolved policy make no mention of ‘black mass’, and there are no facilities to turn this black powder into metals to feed local battery manufacturing demands.

There was once a promising joint venture between Glencore and (the now defunct) Britishvolt, but this initiative rapidly dissolved as the latter went into bankruptcy, eventually selling its site to install a data centre instead.

This means that the UK will likely miss out on the added value of processing black mass and will instead participate as a significant black mass exporter with the current volume of EVs hitting British roads.

How can your business dispose of battery waste?

Whatever happens to the ‘black mass’ market over the next few years, your company can do its part by ensuring any spent batteries are destined for recycling and not end up in landfill, where their precious metal contents may be forever lost.

Firstly, contact the retailer where you purchased your electronics. Most must take back any electronics and their batteries sold to you. If you have lost the procurement details for your spent electronics/batteries, fill in your postcode here to get quotes from local companies specialising in commercial electronics recycling.

Remember, your business has a legal duty of care to ensure batteries don’t end up in landfills, and you may face fines if caught!

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