Foundation of Battery Recycling

As batteries continue to become more popular the need to find end-of-life solutions for them grows.  There are many different types of batteries, and they are made up of varying chemistries. These batteries use elements from across the periodic table including mercury, lead, lithium, nickel and more.  To handle the hazardous materials that may be contained within these batteries there are strict regulations regarding transportation, and we are starting to see more regulations overall for end-of-life disposal.

The impact of throwing used batteries away

When household batteries get thrown into the trash they get sent to landfills. During the decomposition process batteries have the potential to leak harmful chemicals into the soil, potentially making their way into our water supply. If able to decompose, they can take over 100 years to fully decompose*.

Another consideration of throwing away batteries is safety.  Some battery types, including lithium-ion, have a higher potential for a thermal runaway event – if not handled properly. During an event a battery has the potential to catch fire, putting the surrounding environment at risk.  When batteries are placed in the trash the collection trucks, material recovery facilities that sort materials and landfills become at risk for these potential events.

How batteries get recycled

Batteries can be found in large and small formats. Depending on the format of these batteries they go through different recycling processes.

Large format batteries typically go through a disassembly process. With help from our expert battery technicians, batteries are disassembled into smaller components such as a module or cell form.  Disassembly creates more streams of components.  This fully traceable process tracks all components of disassembly. From wiring, steel casing, circuit boards, battery management systems (BMS) and other battery components get recycled.

When common household batteries get recycled, after collection, they get sorted by battery recognition experts.  These specialist undergo extensive training on identification, safety, and categorization. After sorting, the next step is processing.  There are a variety of battery processing approaches tailored to the chemistry type and recycling efficiency. 

A common type of household batteries is an alkaline chemistries.  To process these batteries Battery Solutions’ uses in-house processing is energy efficient, completely mechanical, and creates ZERO emissions. These batteries get separated into three components, one of which is Zinc and Manganese concentrate. 

Other battery chemistries might go through a pyrometallurgical process that uses high heat temperature or a hydrometallurgical process that uses water.

 What batteries get made into

After recycling, battery materials can be reintroduced into the supply chain supporting the creation of new items, contributing to a circular economy. What materials can be extracted depends on the battery’s chemistry make-up. For example, the steel that comes from the recycled batteries can go into the new production of airplanes, buildings or even to make new batteries. The wiring and plastics get sent for further recycling.

While most batteries contain steel, wiring and plastics they also contain other elements. An example of this comes from the common household battery alkaline. The main output from an alkaline battery is zinc & manganese. These elements are considered micronutrients. Micronutrients can help support nutrition.  By increasing zinc in the diet there is the possibility to  reduce the potential for malaria, respiratory diseases, and other illnesses. Manganese has strong antioxidant properties and therefore could reduce the risk for infection, and it plays an essential role in blood sugar regulation. The zinc and manganese concentrate that comes from alkaline batteries is used as a micronutrient in fertilizer. This fertilizer is then used for crops, such as corn and soybeans, while the outer casing is recycled in steel mills that use it to create items like new buildings or airplanes.

The lifecycle of a battery starts with supporting our everyday life and then when recycled, continues to support the creation of new items, reduces materials from landfills and can even support better health.

References

* Mitrovica Environmental Forum and Research Platform. How long does it take for everyday items to decompose?. https://www.ibcmitrovica.eu/inform/how-long-does-it-take-for-everyday-items-to-decompose/ . 2019. 12. 20.