High battery demand, especially for lithium-ion batteries, is outpacing the ability to manage a safe and sustainable recycling process. The industry is behind in logistics and capacity to support reuse/repurposing, but at the same time is ready to jump on opportunities that come from this demand and is already starting to, especially with anticipated rapid growth in the electrical vehicles (EV) market.
Call2Recycle CEO Leo Raudys sat with Waste360 to talk about how a new wave of North American recyclers are bracing for the influx of end-of-life batteries. He gave his take on what’s needed to create a unified national system to collect, recycle, and reuse these batteries. And he points to where he thinks the industry must turn its attention to be ready to take on a big job.
Waste360: Why isn’t the recycling and waste management industry ready to address demand for lithium-ion batteries?
Raudys: From new battery compositions and larger batteries to their use in electric vehicles and power storage, there have been significant shifts in the battery landscape. These rapid changes have accelerated new innovations, and recyclers have their own set of immediate challenges, like securing materials and funding research and development.
Waste360: What opportunities are lithium-ion batteries presenting for recyclers?
Raudys: We’re already seeing significant investment to develop and scale up recycling plants to efficiently recycle these batteries. The eagerness to tackle the battery recycling process isn’t limited to innovative recyclers like Redwood Materials and Li-Cycle, with companies around the world partnering to provide batteries to these recyclers. Furthering the connection between supply and recyclers is where our attention should turn next.
It’s important to remember these lithium-ion batteries can have up to a 10- to 13-year lifespan. They aren’t necessarily off the market now, but we know that time is coming. So, you see a lot of planning for the expected surge and a growing number of domestic recyclers ready to meet that demand. But what lies in this is how we’re going to establish a sustainable infrastructure to get those batteries cost-effectively and safely from Point A to Point B to reuse or recycle them and, ultimately, reduce the need to mine for new materials.
We need that connection to enable a circular and sustainable supply chain — and that’s what Call2Recycle is focused on – helping navigate the logistics and regulatory intricacies of collecting and transporting these batteries.
We’re optimistic we are on the right track, but we must continue to foster innovation, investment, and regulatory stability to get there.
Waste360: Fires from end-of life batteries are common at waste and recycling facilities. What will it take to keep them out of these facilities? And see they are properly managed if they were to end up there?
Raudys: The first step is making sure they don’t end up there in the first place. We focus a lot on making battery recycling as easy and accessible as possible, because we can’t expect consumers to bear the responsibility of being battery sorters. We know, from our own data, that folks are eager to do their part when it comes to battery recycling, so the more we can do to ease the burden on them, the better. But also, the more companies get involved, the more we can equip retailers, employees, manufacturers, auto dealers, and others with knowledge, resources, and materials to safely transport batteries for processing. It will take education, innovation, investment, and a shared commitment, but it will be more than worth it to prevent improper handling, protect our waste workers, first responders, and communities.
Waste360: What is different about managing EV batteries?
Raudys: When it comes to EV logistics for recycling, you can’t just take the battery out, put it in a box, and ship it. These large-format batteries are regulated, necessitating compliance with stringent handling, storage, treatment, and disposal requirements, as well as U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, some which carry penalties for noncompliance.
So, the challenge is figuring out how to create shared collections across multiple Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) for both cost and environmental efficiencies. We’re really focused on helping them navigate these hurdles so that these batteries don’t end up in the wrong places.
Waste360: What else will be entailed in managing them, and specifically in the projected volumes? What will recyclers and processors need to be able to pick up their pace?
Raudys: Recyclers, automakers, and processors are already on the move. There are dozens of companies worldwide that recycle lithium-ion batteries or plan to soon.
They’re getting support from a few key sources. First, independent experts like Call2Recycle advise on every step of the process and provide safe passage for these batteries, from the consumer to the recycler.
Second, governments can incentivize greater investment in recycling battery materials, as President Biden has started to do in his administration’s strategy to establish a sustainable battery supply chain.
And as is happening but needs to happen more, companies and manufacturers around the globe can partner to establish a steady stream of end-of-life batteries to be reused or recycled.
Waste360: What do we know about potential long-term impact of EV batteries?
Raudys: As a society, we like quick fixes and easy solutions. Electric vehicles are fulfilling that desire with their promise of a greener future. What’s less certain, and where overall awareness may be lacking, is the potential long-term impacts of batteries in those vehicles. This is particularly evident when it comes to the environmental impact of not only improperly disposing batteries, but the effect mining virgin materials has on the planet and our communities.
From the environmental effects of mining to looming national security issues, we must look at the whole ecosystem of our supply chain to adequately address the responsibility that comes with electrification. Batteries, through the innovative green technology they enable, can be the key to a climate-friendly future, but we have to maintain that investment in properly managing them at their end-of-life.
Waste360: What is the Biden Administration’s focus as it ties to battery recycling?
Raudys: The administration’s recycling strategy is increasingly focused on sourcing lithium through battery metal extraction and putting it back into the supply chain. Establishing reliable and domestic battery material sourcing and processes to redirect battery materials back into the marketplace are both crucial for the security of our technology supply chain and economy. Environmentally, it will also allow us to keep these batteries out of landfills and reduce our dependence on mining. Safety concerns should continue to be a key regulatory focus, just as the EPA affirmed in its report last summer.
Waste360: How else can recyclers and processors prepare to handle batteries at the anticipated near-future scale? And what will it take to pull it off?
Raudys: It’s going to take a massive mobilization from government, nonprofits, industry trade groups, battery and battery-powered device manufacturers, retailers, and recyclers to come together to establish shared and consistent processes. The good news is we’re already doing that, so we have a good start. This is an incredible opportunity to evolve along with the battery and technology landscape and ensure each stakeholder continues to have the ability to invest in a sustainable battery supply chain.
Waste360: Tell us about the stewardship program for consumer batteries that Call2Recycle runs. Discuss lessons learned and what members are doing to brace for this huge demand.
Raudys: Through the battery stewardship program, Call2Recycle helps resolve the logistical challenges and regulatory intricacies for partners across the U.S. to ensure batteries are safely and responsibly managed when they reach their end-of-life, in accordance with state and national regulations.
The program is primarily voluntarily funded by more than 300 rechargeable battery and battery-powered product manufacturers. In Vermont, where Call2Recycle administers the primary battery stewardship program, the primary battery manufacturers fund collection and recycling of primary batteries.
Call2Recycle offers effective, safe, and efficient battery management, from rechargeable and primary consumer batteries to electric transport and electric vehicles. Through its established network of more than 15,000 drop-off sites across the nation, including municipalities and retailers like Lowe's, The Home Depot, and Staples, Call2Recycle has safely and responsibly recycled more than 140 million pounds of batteries, with more than 8.1 million collected in 2021 alone.
Now we’re applying what we learned from the past 25+ years to the growing e-mobility space, using our existing successful model and scaling it up to meet tomorrow’s recycling needs.
Everyone, from collection sites, processors, manufacturers, and more, wants to be part of this solution. Our goal is to responsibly and safely care for the mobile world we live in by continuing to make battery recycling as easy and accessible as possible, for all.