Delving into the consumer battery recycling history, progress, selected challenges and some solutions.
By David Nightingale
Automotive batteries have very high recycling rates in the U.S.—well over 95 percent by current estimates. This performance has advanced through a history of contaminated lead-acid battery processing sites, followed by strict environmental regulation of lead by hazardous waste laws, banning of lead-acid batteries from disposal in the solid waste stream, and, in many states, mandatory “core charges” to incentivize consumers to return used automotive batteries for recycling when purchasing replacement batteries.
It is more complicated to tell the recovery effectiveness story for the smaller but potentially problematic consumer household batteries. This battery waste management story has a unique and evolving path that involves hands-on work at many, if not most, HHW collection programs. “HHW Corner” will delve into the consumer battery recycling history, progress, selected challenges and some solutions in this and next month’s articles.
Evolution of Consumer Batteries
Consumer batteries used to be comprised mostly of standard-sized, single-use, dry-cells to power toys, radios, tape players, flashlights and similar low power devices. Single-use batteries, called “primary” batteries, are non-rechargeable and include alkaline, lithium (metal) and carbon zinc. The common 1.5 volt AA, AAA, C, D, as well as 6-volt and 9-volt dry-cell primary batteries are still widely used, but consumer rechargeable battery packs have become much more ubiquitous and not generally defined by any standard size, shape or voltage output (see Figure 1).
Every cell phone, cordless tool, electric toothbrush and laptop computer is powered by a high-energy-density rechargeable battery pack. Rechargeable batteries are called “secondary” batteries. Any consumer device that needs to be plugged in, then operates cordlessly contains some kind of secondary battery. Even so, many consumers are unaware that these items contain a rechargeable battery that should be safely and responsibly managed by recycling instead of throwing them into the municipal solid waste stream.
Infamously, the batteries that are powering phones and laptops have occasionally had spontaneous battery fires. There have been instances where batteries in transit have caused truck and plane fires. They have also sparked fires at solid waste transfer stations or MRF facilities in at least Texas, Maine, California and Minnesota.1 Bill Keegan, President of Dem-Con Companies, estimates that “Nationally we’re losing about a facility a month, burned to the ground by battery fires.”2 Often, the safe management of these batteries at their end-of-life falls to local solid waste and HHW programs to manage. We examine some of these management issues in the following paragraphs starting with the battery industry sponsored initiative to educate and recycle rechargeable batteries.
Beginnings of Product Stewardship for Rechargeable Batteries
The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, RBRC, was formed in 1994 as an industry-run non-profit organization to educate consumers and recover and recycle rechargeable batteries. The initial focus was on nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) rechargeable batteries, the predominant consumer rechargeable battery chemistry at the time.3 This initiative was driven largely due to public health concerns about keeping the heavy metals in rechargeable batteries from contaminating the solid waste stream, landfills and waste-to-energy facility emissions. Though Ni-Cd batteries are still manufactured, they are being replaced with the more popular rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) rechargeable batteries. Li-ion batteries are lighter weight for any given use because they have about twice the energy density of Ni-Cd batteries. They also contain valuable materials that can be recovered at their end-of-life, including cobalt, nickel and lithium.
Name Change and Expanded Mission
In 2013, RBRC formally changed its company name to Call2Recycle, Inc.® The name change reflected an expanded scope to match the changing world of battery chemistries, applications, as well as its battery collection partners’ recycling needs. In addition to the full range of consumer rechargeable batteries, Call2Recycle began accepting cell phones and most recently, alkaline and other primary, single-use batteries, often for a fee.
In 2012, 18 years after the voluntary industry program was created, Call2Recycle had diverted more than 70 million pounds of rechargeable batteries from its network of 30,000 collection points, including retail, recycling and HHW collection locations. Eight years later, by 2020, Call2Recycle has collected an additional 60 million pounds of rechargeable batteries, almost as much as in the initial 18 years. This not only shows significant progress in the sheer volume of batteries recovered, but a baseline to measure the overall effectiveness of this program is hard to measure. It is unclear how many more millions of pounds of rechargeable batteries remained in the waste stream.
Elusive Recovery Rates
Call2Recycle’s collection program is clearly growing in the volume of collected batteries, but it is difficult to estimate its effective collection rate due to a number of factors. Because manufacturers’ participation with Call2Recycle is purely voluntary in most states, not all battery manufacturers do. As evidence, Call2Recycle estimated in 2013 that approximately 40 percent of what they collected were batteries from non-participating “free-riders”—manufacturers who are not funding the national collection and recycling program.4 Since battery production and sales figures are sensitive proprietary information, those numbers are not always shared with Call2Recycle, making any calculation of an accurate baseline infeasible under current conditions. In addition, there are other consumer battery recycling companies besides Call2recycle who are unlikely to voluntarily share their collection information. Finally, based on how they are used, rechargeable batteries have a variable end-of-life timeframe. All of these factors together make it extremely challenging to determine a rational baseline amount of batteries that are available for recycling in any year.
Fee Structure Reflects Both the Value of Recycling and Free Rider Cost Advantage
Companies that participate as “stewards” in the Call2Recycle program pay fees for batteries based on sales into the marketplace (by weight), as shown in Table 1. Fees are based on a number of factors but primarily relate to different costs and risks associated with the safe handling, sorting and processing each type of battery chemistry. If the level of free rider battery manufacturers were substantially reduced, the cost per weight for participating manufacturers would very likely be lower. Because the voluntary nature of the Call2Recycle program, which provides no penalties for free riders, non-participating manufacturers currently experience an unfair cost advantage over the participating manufacturers.
Improving Reporting and Batteries Collection Rates
Battery manufacturers are required to report product stewardship results to at least the states of FL, CA, ME, MN, NJ, NY and VT.5 The typical Call2Recycle report provides a comparison of pounds of rechargeable consumer batteries collected to the prior reporting period. Because Call2Recycle does not have an accurate baseline value to represent the volume of batteries available for recycling, nor what other battery recyclers are recovering, the state reports do not contain or estimate typical program effectiveness metrics such as collection or recycling percentages.
The notable exception to this is for primary consumer batteries (single-use, non-rechargeables) in Vermont. A 2014 Vermont law requires primary batteries manufacturers that sell in Vermont to be part of a product stewardship organization. This mandatory participation requirement is typical for recent state product stewardship programs and directly addresses the free rider and reporting problems inherent in voluntary programs. Examples of mandatory industry participation product stewardship laws are common for electronics, architectural paints and other industry groups.
More than 90 percent of primary battery manufacturers are participating in the Vermont program, largely eliminating the free riders. Further, the Vermont statute requires the product stewardship organization to calculate the primary battery collection rate and set annual goals for the same.6 The goals set by Call2Recycle were 8 percent collection rate in 2016 ramping up to 20 percent by 2020.7 Fortunately, Call2Recycle exceeded its goals for 2016 and 2017, but was just slightly under its goal for 2019.8 Significant progress is being made. In the 2016 Call2Recycle report to Vermont, even with 90 percent manufacturer participation, the primary battery collection rate is characterized as “notional sales data”, indicating that Call2Recycle feels the baseline sales data estimate is somewhat speculative.9 Even if imperfect, a meaningful collection effectiveness metric is now in place for primary batteries in Vermont.
If there were state (or federal) laws that required all battery manufacturers to participate in a consumer rechargeable battery product stewardship program, to eliminate the free riders, as well as required all battery recycling companies to report collection and recycling volumes, it should become possible to have meaningful metrics for rechargeable consumer battery collection and recycling in the future. Lacking that, we really do not know how effective the current battery recycling programs are.
David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C., is Principal at Special Waste Associates (Olympia, WA), a company that assists communities in developing or improving HHW and VSQG collection infrastructure and operations. They have visited more than 145 operating HHW collection facilities in North America. As a specialty consulting firm, Special Waste Associates works directly for program sponsors providing independent design review for new facilities or upgrading existing facilities—from concept through final design for safer, more efficient and cost-effective collection infrastructures. Special Waste Associates also published the book, HHW Collection Facility Design Guide.
Thanks to Shane Thompson and Linda Gabor, both with Call2Recycle, for their input for the development of this month’s article.
1. Based on media reports provided by Call2Recycle.
2. Recycling Plants are Catching on Fire, and Lithium-ion Batteries Are to Blame, The Verge, Feb. 28, 2020.
3. See Vermont’s Act 95, one of the earliest consumer battery product stewardship laws codified in 1991 at Title 10 section 6621b, which also addressed certain mercury and small sealed lead acid batteries, Vermont Laws.
5. State Annual Reports | Call2Recycle | United States
6. VT__Act_139_PrimaryBatteryLa.pdf (ymaws.com)
7. 2019-Report-on-Battery-Stewardship.pdf (vermont.gov)
8. Ibid, and EPR-program-table-2019-data.pdf (vermont.gov)
9. VT Primary Battery Stewardship Annual Report, Feb. 28, 2017, Bi-Annual Report