It’s a tale of two materials
Batteries are the heart of cleaning and hygiene equipment. They’re critical to uptime, cleaning standards, profitability, and ROI.
But what happens to your batteries at the end-of-life phase? That’s the question many schools, municipalities, and companies are asking. These organizations are embracing recycling, sustainability, social responsibility, and environmentally friendly products
and services. And these organizations aren’t just voting with their hearts— they’re voting with their wallets.
Fortunately, recycling batteries isn’t just good for the planet; it can also be profitable.
Yet, to be clear, the perfect battery for the purpose of sustainability does not exist—but some batteries are more recyclable and sustainable than others.
The Battery Recycling Gap
There are two types of battery chemistries: lead-acid, which is the most-used battery in cleaning and handling (flooded and maintenance-free AGM); and lithium-ion, which is an emerging technology.
Both battery chemistries have pros and cons depending on their application, but in terms of recycling potential, the differences are stark. Lead-acid batteries are 99.3% recycled (returned for recycling) while lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are 5% downcycled.
The US EPA has found that lead-acid batteries are, in fact, the most recycled product in North America. They are 99% recyclable (i.e., only 1% of material isn’t able to be recycled), which is more recyclable than an aluminum can. Old lead-acid batteries are capable of becoming new lead-acid batteries, with 80% of the material for the new lead-acid batteries coming from a previously recycled one.
Yet, Li-ion batteries only have the potential to be downcycled, which is the process of breaking an item down into its component elements or materials to be reused for what is often a lower-value product. Li-ion batteries cannot be recycled into new batteries because they are created from virgin raw materials.
This means that Li-ion batteries are generally about 0% to 60% down-cyclable, with 60% being possible at the world’s flagship Li-ion recycling plant. Ultimately, at least 40% of the collected recycled material will need to be landfilled.
While some of the smartest scientists and engineers in the world are hard at work to change this discrepancy in recycling potential, they still do not have clear plans to close this gap.
The Most Recycled Product in North America
Lead-acid batteries are the most recycled product in North America because they are considered a closed loop—they can be recycled to make more batteries, nearly indefinitely.
Firstly, this is because lead-acid batteries are easy to recycle. To start, recycling machines crush spent batteries into small pieces for easy separation, and recyclable lead is then about 60% of the battery’s weight. Recyclable polypropylene is the most common case material for batteries, and it is then easily used to create new battery casing. Battery acid can also be easily neutralized and turned into water for treatment; converted to sodium sulfate, an ingredient in laundry detergent and glass and textile production; or reused to fill new batteries.
Secondly, lead-acid recycling is profitable. It’s simple, it’s automated, and lead has a high market value.
Thirdly, there’s a nationwide recycling infrastructure, along with government regulations and battery industry support. The US Department of Energy explains, “A vast recycling supply chain collects, stores, transports, recycles, and re-introduces more than 99% of lead back into the lead-acid battery supply chain.”
Low Downcycling Rates for Another Battery Chemistry
With such high rates for recycled lead-acid batteries, the low rates of downcycled Li-ion batteries become stark in comparison. There are a few reasons in particular for these low rates.
- There are technological hurdles. Li-ion batteries are complex, small, and vary in shape, size, internal chemistry, raw materials, and electronics; they are also rarely designed for disassembly. The Chemical and Engineering News explains that “because researchers have made only modest progress improving recyclability, relatively few Li-ion batteries end up being recycled.”
- Current lithium-ion downcycling isn’t profitable. Downcycling/recycling plants are costly to build and operate. Many recovered materials are low-value and about three times more expensive than virgin-mined equivalents. Unfortunately, the economics against recycling may tilt further as valuable/expensive materials like cobalt are removed from Li-ion batteries completely.
- There’s no nationwide lithium-ion recycling infrastructure or recycling legislation. Although landfilled Li-ion batteries can leach toxic chemicals, there are no recycling laws to protect the environment from them; the country lacks the recycling laws and collection infrastructure for Li-ion batteries that have been put in place for lead-acid batteries.
Inaccurate Recycling Claims
Some companies make outrageous recycling claims in regard to battery recycling. For this reason, make sure to check recycling/sustainability claims made by companies against research done by the US EPA, academic publications, and peer- reviewed journals, which together formed the basis for this article. All batteries should be properly recycled or disposed of, but some cannot be (or are not).
What’s Next for Battery Recycling?
When government regulations, infrastructure, and recycling technologies for lithium-ion catch up—and we hope they do—Li-ion batteries may be required to be recycled. However, the economics of lithium-ion recycling mean that battery users may need to pay for disposal.
At present, government agencies and scientists are pushing hard to advance lithium-ion recycling and eventually reach 90% recovery in the US. We strongly support all research to close the gap between the recycling rates of Li-ion and lead-acid batteries, just like we supported lead-acid recycling from its infancy. It’s the right move for our environment, our communities, and our society.
By John Connell, Vice President of SLI Products Group, Crown Battery Manufacturing