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Carl Smith: The Evolving Battery Recycling Journey


It’s been 25 years since the first efforts to recycle consumer batteries began. During that time, a lot has changed and some things, unfortunately, have not.  While there’s no crystal ball for the future of batteries and recycling, a look at the last 25 years provides an appreciation of the work done and a glimpse into the future marketplace.  

 

Historic Snapshot

The first efforts to recycle consumer batteries occurred in the early 1990’s.  Prompted by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the government identified certain “metals of concern” when used and disposed, including three important materials used in batteries:  mercury, lead and cadmium.  Mercury was used in primary items while lead and cadmium were critical in rechargeable batteries.  In response to the requirements of RCRA, several states – including Minnesota, Iowa, New Jersey, Maine, Connecticut and Florida – enacted legislation to ban the disposal of nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) and small sealed lead acid (SSLA) batteries into landfills and placed certain requirements on manufacturers to take them back for recycling.  

Certain voluntary and industry-backed battery recycling efforts – such as today’s Call2Recycle® program – forged their roots in keeping potentially harmful chemicals out of landfills.

In the early 1990’s, very few devices could use rechargeable batteries. They simply could not deliver an acceptable level of performance to allow them to be widely used in laptops, telephones, power tools, cameras and other devices. So, the total number of devices using rechargeable batteries did not demand widespread availability of battery recycling services – the need simply wasn’t there. The batteries of that era were large, heavy and generally available for frequent replacement. They had to be since the battery life wasn’t very long. There were several retailers primarily devoted to selling replacement ones to support this use pattern.

By the mid-1990’s, most US-based manufacturers of primary batteries had eliminated mercury from the batteries and the passage of the 1996 Mercury Containing and Rechargeable Battery Act affirmed this approach. Today, alkaline batteries are chemically benign and are more often than not sent to landfill.

 

Changing Battery Landscape

Over the last five years, lithium ion (Li-Ion) batteries have substantially replaced Ni-Cd and SSLA batteries in the market due to its higher energy density, lighter weight and flexible form factor. In 2016 alone, 5.6 billion lithium ion cells were sold, dwarfing the rechargeable battery sales of the entire 1990s.  The proliferation of batteries in the marketplace is staggering and continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

While lithium ion batteries do not contain harmful chemicals, the safety risks in handling and transporting them have created a new set of environmental concerns. Consumer battery recycling no longer can be rationalized based on potentially harmful chemicals; the need to support battery recycling now must be based on the prospect of conserving resources and limiting the amount of virgin material used to manufacture batteries.

The rise in products with non-removable batteries is also impacting the battery recycling market.  They’ve become ubiquitous, supporting the increasingly emerging internet of things (IoT), whereby everything is web-enabled and mobile. Almost no cellphones have easily removable batteries and battery power devices are in buildings’ walls, our clothes and even in our bodies.

 

Continuing To Lead The Charge

In looking to the future, the next 25 years will see equally significant changes in batteries.  First, chemistries will continue to change. They will become more organically based instead of using metals. Second, they will become increasingly integrated into products, materials and the fabric of our lives.  The concept of “wearable” technology is only now beginning to take hold. Think of a garment that cools or warms based on body temperature. Finally, batteries will become much more pervasive, powerful and smarter. They will power almost every motive device. They will manage our homes and buildings in which we work.

Even with all these changes, a constant remains the need to recycle. While recycling habits have slightly improved over the last 25 years, the amount of waste society generates has, if anything worsened. Batteries are just one of many materials where diversion must improve and continue to grow.

By Carl Smith, CEO & President, Call2Recycle

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Lien Thong

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