The inconvenient truth about batteries | Don Brunell

More than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries are thrown away each year.

Each year Americans throw away more than three billion batteries constituting 180,000 tons of hazardous material and the situation is likely to get much worse as the world shifts to electric vehicles.

Everyday-green.com reports more than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C and D) are thrown away every year. They power electronic toys and games, portable audio equipment and flashlights and make up 20 percent of the household hazardous materials in our garbage dumps.

Unlike composted waste, batteries are hazardous and contaminate our environment, particularly our drinking water. Even though the harmful materials are tightly encased, the casing is often crushed during landfilling. The spent batteries contain toxic acids and metals such as mercury, nickel, cadmium, cobalt and lead.

While it is convenient to just chuck used batteries into the trash, the more expensive rechargeable types can be used up to a thousand times more than the single-use types, but recharging is inconvenient, time-consuming and robs counter space.

Today, America is a throw-away country bent on simple convenient solutions. Even where there are recycling programs, too many recyclables end up in the trash. Things are about to change dramatically as more electric vehicles populate our roads and our government and manufacturers deal the growing backlog of old car batteries.

The Guardian reported the number of electric cars worldwide surpassed two million in 2017. The International Energy Agency estimates there will be 140 million electrics globally by 2030 leaving behind 11 million tons of spent lithium-ion batteries in need of recycling. That is herculean task considering last year only five percent of the European Union’s electric car batteries were recycled.

The good news is automakers are actively looking for ways to extend the life of lithium batteries. Reprocessing spent batteries is getting more attention as manufacturers increase demand for metals, particularly cobalt, which are already in short supply.

One approach is converting car batteries for household use. The Guardian reports Aceleron, a hi-tech British startup, plans to take electric car batteries which still have 70 percent of their capacity and repackaging them for growing home energy storage.

American Manganese, Inc. (AMY), a Surrey, B.C. company, has patented a process which recovers lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum from cathodes used in lithium-ion batteries. AMY, which has a pilot plant in operation near Vancouver, B.C., is partnering with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to bring the process into commercial production.

AMY uses a leaching and precipitation method to recover the metals. Currently, the cathodes are smelted and only a portion of the cobalt is salvaged, but virtually no lithium.

The new technology is of particular interest to our nation which imports three-fourths of its cobalt, half of its lithium and all of its manganese.

To be competitive, American lithium battery makers need to have reliable supplies of critical metals and be cost competitive worldwide.

China, which plans to put six million electric cars on the roads by 2025, has recently slowed it electric production; however, China still has plenty of willing investors. Last year VW, Daimler, Toyota, Ford, the Renault-Nissan alliance and GM all announced joint-ventures to produce electric vehicles in China.

One reason is China has been stockpiling critical metals and its buying spree has been partly responsible for the 2017 surge in the price of cobalt which was 2.5 times greater than 2016.

Our opportunity is finding new environmentally and economically feasible ways to reprocess all spent batteries and prevent them from being trucked off to landfills. Enterprising Americans will find ways to make recycling more convenient in our homes and at work if it is possible to make it profitable.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

More in Business

Montana woman recognized among Fortune’s greatest world leaders | Don Brunell

Marilyn Bartlett ranked No. 16 for her effort to save her state employee health insurance plan.

Retrieving ocean trash is only the first step | Don Brunell

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is nearly the size of Alaska.

Enumclaw Recyclers, The Use Again Store re-open on Garrett

The businesses have collected close to 1.3 million pounds of electronics for the E-Cycle Washington program over four years.

The darker side of renewable energy | Don Brunell

Renewable energy doesn’t automatically mean it’s clean, especially in how certain renewable energy products are made.

Oil giants betting on electric tech | Don Brunell

Making electric cars and new batteries for homes and power grids is a major step toward replacing carbon-based energy with electricity from renewables such as wind and solar.

Trade issues bring state Republicans, Democrats together

Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural products in the nation.

California wildfires spark renewed debate over underground power lines | Don Brunell

Power lines could have caused the Camp wildfire in California.

Microsoft has expanded their AccountGuard service to 12 new European Countries. Yellow: European countries already protected. Blue: European countries now protected. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Microsoft warns of hacking ahead of elections

Launching defense services in Europe.

Those pesky tax incentives | Don Brunell

We need them to start big projects, no matter how much of a pain they may be in the future.

Praerit Garg joins Smartsheet as CTO

Bellevue-based company employs 760 people

In Buckley, more storage units on 410, beer and wine downtown

Wood, Wine, & Whimsy got their alcohol license Feb. 12.

Growing resistance to corporate incentives | Don Brunell

There is a growing backlash to corporations among liberals.