Battery Recycling Benefits and Challenges: Q&A with Call2Recycle’s Carl Smith

battery recycling“Batteries are somewhat of a unique object in waste management in they look fairly benign, but can cause a big problem,” says Carl Smith, president and CEO of Call2Recycle. “A very, very small battery can create a fairly significant punch.”

Smith understands what’s at stake. The North American battery stewardship organization Call2Recycle was founded in the mid-1990s as a voluntary, industry-run initiative to keep heavy metals from rechargeable batteries out of the solid waste stream. This year, the organization won an Environmental Leader Product Award for their patent-pending flame retardant box liner, which the judges praised for making battery recycling safer.

Call2Recycle seeks to protect and preserve the environment through the responsible management of batteries at the end of their lives. Their program’s battery recycling process helps ensure that the reclaimed materials go back into the manufacture of new products — and not into landfills.

Recently we caught up with Smith to understand corporate battery recycling and why this type of waste stream is so challenging.

How does corporate battery recycling typically work in the United States?

White-collar workforce recycling, with some exceptions, is usually done through IT departments when laptops and similar types of devices require the batteries to be replaced at end-of-life. Generally speaking, we don’t recycle a very high percentage of batteries placed on the marketplace.

In a manufacturing environment, it’s different. When you get into plant floors and warehouses, you tend to see a more structured approach. Almost every major company will have some quality program and standard operating procedures. Devices routinely handled are serviced, and a lot of that is making sure the batteries are workable and fully charged, and if not, replaced.

What are the main benefits for businesses that recycle batteries?

It has the opportunity to achieve the organization’s sustainability goals, and meet their CSR requirements that they committed to and that investors look at. The extent to which they think about waste and recycling is a critical element in any organization’s sustainability goals.

Are there particular battery recycling challenges, especially around safety?

Batteries don’t do anything by themselves. They only work when they power something else. So if you’re going to commit to recycling them, you have to remove them from the host product they’re powering. When you do that, you increase the risk for a number of issues — the first and most important of which is safety.

Increasingly there are products that aren’t designed for the batteries to be removed. By removing that battery, you create damage that increases the probability of the battery being a safety risk. Particularly, the terminals of batteries, through friction against other things like metal, can create a spark that could eventually cause a fire.

Contrast that to other things that need to be recycled: aluminum cans, cardboard, newspapers. Those tend to be, number one, freestanding and easily identifiable material. Number two, there is very little risk of comingling them with anything else except batteries.

Then the battery gets to the facility, and that’s where the fire happens?

You’ll hear about [fires] in trucks or in landfills — it’s usually downstream. If it occurs beforehand, that tends to be the design of the battery with the product.

Identifying batteries and separating them is a good first step, but after removing them you have to properly insulate the positive terminal to prevent any future issues from happening, and keep them in a separate stream so they can be managed accordingly.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

There’s a leadership void on waste and waste management issues. When we talk about climate change, greenhouse gases, and fossil fuels, those tend to be national or international issues. Waste and waste management, in this country and Canada, too, tends to be a regional and local issue. As a consequence, the industries, the response, and the leadership is awfully fragmented.

Let’s talk about e-waste, which is the first cousin of batteries because a lot of it contains them. Twenty-five states have e-waste laws, and no two are alike. There has been no federal intervention despite industry’s attempts to get Congress to pay attention. They want consistency, predictability, and some overall guidelines under which these programs can operate.

Think about how we handle material generally. There’s no consistency. I travel a lot and each hotel wants to give you a recycling container in addition to the garbage container. I have no idea what’s supposed to go in because it’s going change depending on what suburb of a city I’m staying in.

Where do you see battery and e-waste recycling headed in the future?

What’s happening is we’re seeing a proliferation of electronic devices of all shapes and sizes that’s more profound than we’d ever imagined. It’s going to increase pressure — just by its sheer volume and complexity — on our municipal waste systems to figure out how to best handle them.

What does this mean for businesses?

It’s both good and bad. They have more electronic devices in a workplace now than ever before. I’m looking around my office around me and I’m seeing quite a few things now. There’s an opportunity to do more, but it has become an increasingly complex task that’s going to involve much, much more than an IT department.

The whole advent of sensors and the Internet of Things means everything is connected to a network, and it often involves batteries. There has got to be much more of a holistic approach dealing with batteries in any environment, particularly corporate environments.

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