EPA can lead battery recycling charge to secure our electric future

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Leo Raudys is CEO of Call2Recycle, America’s first and largest consumer battery recycling and management organization.

To help avert climate catastrophe, wWe need to electrify every corner of our lives and our economy using clean energy – an attempt to undo centuries of damage done to our planet by our reliance 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 public transit won’t get us to the greener future we seek without a recycling plan. millions more pounds of batteries than today. Fighting climate change and Earth degradation means keeping batteries and the devices that work on them out of landfills. It is also to reuse valuable mineral batteries are made, reducing the need to mine them.

The US EPA now has a historic opportunity, made possible by last year’s bipartisan Infrastructure Act, to pave the way to a time when every battery is properly recycled. The 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 EPA’s larger push — with $375 million in infrastructure funding — to establish new recycling, reuse and waste prevention programs that will advance the circular economy.

This is the biggest step the federal government has ever taken in battery recycling, and it’s long overdue. Batteries have a wide range of chemistries, such as lithium-ion, nickel-cadmium, small sealed lead-acid, and alkaline. Batteries also vary greatly in size, from tiny to the size of a mattress. A one-size-fits-all approach will not suffice.

The EPA took its first step this summer 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 the EPA should focus on as soon as possible:

Educate Americans about battery recycling and expand options for single-use batteries

Safe and 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 survey commissioned by Call2Recycle, about 3 in 10 Americans do not believe at all that single-use (30%) or rechargeable (29%) batteries can be recycled. Almost as many people were unsure if they could recycle these types of batteries.

All this means that most batteries are not recycled as they could be. We need cohesive national campaigns that focus on safety and address a variety of battery types, so that no battery ever ends up in the trash or in the curbside recycling bin.

Support the creation of a large battery recycling infrastructure

Increasing the number of zero-emission vehicles on the road and weaning our energy grid from fossil fuels are of urgent importance to reverse current global warming trends. We need to get a head start now to prepare for an increased need to recycle the larger batteries that will facilitate these transitions.

Today, significant parts of the infrastructure for recycling larger batteries, which come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, remain immature. The EPA should find ways to advance a stronger infrastructure that meets the needs of today and anticipates the batteries of tomorrow.

Improve the management of damaged, defective and recalled batteries

Recyclers cannot collect damaged, defective or recalled batteries in the same way as intact batteries due to regulatory and transportation requirements.

Call2Recycle and other battery recyclers, including those focusing on lithium-ion batteries, have developed best practices for managing DDR batteries. Now we need education campaigns for consumers and retailers – like we are doing now with e-bike batteries, for example. We also need safety training for people who handle these batteries and widespread adoption of practices such as placing defective batteries in special non-flammable containers.

Deploy clear and consistent national standards for voluntary labeling

Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act in 1996. No major federal battery legislation has been enacted since.

The Battery Act requires that nickel-cadmium and some small sealed lead-acid batteries bear the label “Battery should be recycled or disposed of properly”. To better promote recycling, and with funding from battery and product manufacturers, we created a label that has a stack surrounded by three arrows and the word “RECYCLE”. The EPA certified the label in 1998 and it is still used on batteries and in product manuals today. To the best of our knowledge, there is currently no other EPA certified battery recycling label.

A lot has changed since then, with many more devices, sizes and types of batteries needing to be properly recycled. Improving voluntary battery labeling to meet current needs while planning for future progress will most certainly boost recycling and maintain safety.

New battery labeling guidelines must clearly address international standards. At Call2Recycle, we have thought about whether we need a new language that distinguishes battery recycling from curbside recycling, and we would like to do this in cooperation with the 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 channels.

Manufacturers, local and state governments, and recyclers have long been part of the solution, and they will continue to play an important role. By putting the nation on track to accelerate battery recycling, the EPA can lead the way to securing our electric future – a healthier climate, national energy security, a circular economy that conserves natural resources, and all the advantages of modern life.

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