Leo Raudys is CEO of Call2Recycle, America’s first and largest consumer battery recycling and management organization.
To help prevent a climate catastrophe, wwe need to electrify every corner of our lives and our economy with clean energy – an attempt to undo centuries of damage to our planet through our dependence on fossil fuels. An electric future will also improve national security by reducing our need for oil from other countries.
But cleaner energy in homes, workplaces, businesses and transportation won’t lead us to the greener future we seek without a plan to recycle millions of pounds more batteries than we do now. The fight against climate change and the degradation of the earth means that batteries and the devices that run on them must be kept away from landfills. It also means to reuse the valuable minerals batteries are made of, reducing the need to mine them.
The US EPA now has a historic opportunity, enabled by last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, to chart a course for a time when every battery is properly recycled. EPA has $25 million and five years to implement battery collection best practices and develop guidelines for an updated national voluntary labeling system that promotes recycling.
The initiative is part of the Biden administration and increased pressure from EPA — with $375 million in infrastructure funding — to establish new recycling, reuse and waste prevention programs that promote the circular economy.
This is the largest action the federal government has ever taken on battery recycling, and it is long overdue. Batteries have a wide range of chemical properties such as lithium ion, nickel cadmium, small sealed lead acid and alkaline. Batteries also vary widely in size, from minuscule to the size of a mattress. A one-size-fits-all approach is not enough.
The EPA took its first step this summer by seeking public comment, and a progress report to Congress is expected next fall. As the leader of America’s first and largest consumer battery recycling and management organization, here are four things I think EPA should focus on ASAP:
Educate Americans about battery recycling and expand single-use battery options
Safe, responsible battery recycling options are widely available for rechargeable batteries, but options are very limited for single-use batteries. No wonder people are confused about battery recycling!
In 2019, according to a poll commissioned by Call2Recycle, about 3 in 10 Americans believed that either single-use (30%) or rechargeable batteries (29%) could not be recycled at all. Nearly as many people were unsure whether they could recycle these battery types.
All this means that most batteries are not recycled as they could be. We need consistent, nationwide campaigns that emphasize safety and target a variety of battery types so that a battery is never thrown in the trash or bin.
Supporting the establishment of a large battery recycling infrastructure
Increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles on the road and phasing out our energy network from fossil fuels are urgently important to reverse current warming trends. We need to get ahead of ourselves now to prepare for a greater need to recycle the bigger batteries that will support those transitions.
Today, important parts of the infrastructure for recycling larger batteries, which come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, remain immature. The EPA must find ways to develop stronger infrastructure that meets today’s needs and anticipates tomorrow’s batteries.
Improve handling of damaged, defective and recalled batteries
Recyclers cannot collect damaged, defective or recalled batteries in the same way as intact batteries due to legal and shipping requirements.
Call2Recycle and other battery recyclers, including companies focused on lithium-ion batteries, have developed best practices for handling DDR batteries. Now we need information campaigns for consumers and retailers, as we do now with, for example, batteries for e-bikes. We also need safety training for people handling these batteries and widespread adoption of practices such as placing defective batteries in special non-combustible containers.
Roll out clear and consistent national standards for voluntary labelling
Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Management of Mercury and Rechargeable Batteries Act in 1996.
The Battery Act requires that nickel-cadmium and certain small sealed lead-acid batteries be labeled “Battery must be recycled or disposed of properly.” To better promote recycling, and with funding from battery and product manufacturers, we made a label with a battery surrounded by three arrows chasing and the word ‘RECYCLE’. EPA certified the label in 1998 and it is still used on batteries and in product manuals. To our knowledge, there are no other EPA certified battery recycling labels to date.
A lot has changed since then, with many more devices and sizes and types of batteries that need to be recycled properly. Improving the voluntary labeling of batteries to meet current needs while planning for future developments will certainly boost recycling and maintain safety.
New battery labeling guidelines must clearly comply international standards. At Call2Recycle, we’ve been thinking about whether we need a new language that differentiates battery recycling from street recycling, and we’d like to do that in partnership with EPA. Finally, our labels direct people to a toll-free number that allows them to find a drop-off location by zip code, but people also need more efficient digital avenues.
Manufacturers, local and state governments and recyclers have long been part of the solution and will continue to play an important role. By setting the nation on track to boost battery recycling, EPA can lead the way to securing our electric future — one with a healthier climate, national energy security, a circular economy that conserves natural resources, and all the benefits of modern living .
Contributed pieces do not reflect an editorial position of Waste Dive. Do you have an opinion on this topic or on other topics we cover? Submit an opinion piece.