WASHINGTON — A coalition of companies, academics and nonprofits Tuesday launched a new initiative to recycle two million more car batteries, which they claim will mean that virtually all car batteries in the U.S. will be recycled.
Conventional car batteries are made of lead and acid, and extracting the resources needed to make new ones can harm the environment and human health. Harvard University public health scientist Ramon Sanchez said at an event hosted by the Responsible Battery Coalition on Tuesday that expansion of car battery recycling over the past five years has prevented as many as 1.8 million people from being exposed to dangerous lead.
During recycling, nearly all the components of the old batteries are used to make new ones. Since individuals are usually given financial incentives to return their old car battery when they need a new one, recycling is very common. The industry estimates that 99.3 percent of car batteries get recycled, but the coalition hopes to reach 100 percent, and is confident that their efforts will succeed.
But the generation of batteries that will follow the lead-acid variety is already posing a challenge for recyclers. Adam Muellerweiss of Johnson Controls, a battery manufacturer, said lithium-ion batteries, the next generation, lack the standardization that has made lead-acid batteries so easy to reprocess and reuse.
“If you look at the electronics industry which is the largest user of lithium-ion batteries on a volume basis, only 3% of those batteries are recovered and recycled,” said Muellerweiss. “That’s not acceptable.”
Lithium-ion battery makers closely protect the formulas for their products. Apple and Samsung, for example, are constantly changing the amounts of so-called “rare-earth metals” their products contain to create more efficient ones. That complicates the recycling process, which relies on economies of scale to economically reuse materials.
Dr. Sanchez stressed the importance of standardizing next-gen batteries so that their valuable components can be reused.
“[These materials] are not called ‘rare-earth’ just because we want to brand them with a weird name,” said Sanchez. “No, they are not common and we need to recycle them in order to keep using them.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-chairs the Senate Auto Caucus, called the coalition “an example to others around the world” for its effectiveness.
The Responsible Battery Coalition was formed last April with the stated goal of managing battery usage in transportation, shipping and heavy industry. Members of the coalition come from across industry lines, including Honda and Ford, retailers such as AutoZone, and manufacturers like Johnson Controls.