It’s time to get serious about battery recycling

3 min read

By Dr. Athanasios Karakatsanis, production director, Sunlight Recycling

The world’s energy diet is changing. Significant government investments and policies focused on green energy solutions has seen the global battery market increase significantly in recent years. In fact, it’s expected to continue growing at an annual rate of 14 per cent between 2020 and 2027.

However, aswe look ahead to a world which is increasingly powered by electricity, battery manufacturers are faced with a serious challenge: how to effectively recycle the 3.5 million tons of batteries which are expected to reach end of life by 2030.

In addition to this, the industry has seen a sharp rise in unregulated, and even illegal, battery recycling options as a result of the increased interest. This affects lead acid batteries in particular, and if current trends continue, then as many as half of spent batteries could end up being disposed of improperly.

This unregulated and dangerous process can result in the poisonous effluent waste and fumes contaminating neighbouring areas. It’s an issue that global health and development organisations are all too aware of, with lead-acid batteries being labelled one of the world’s worst pollution problems by NGOs Pure Earth and Green Cross Switzerland in 2016.

Given these trends and threats it is obvious that battery manufacturers have a duty of care to ensure the proper recycling of batteries at the end of their life, regardless of location. The industry must solve this problem now before increased demand for batteries results in huge amounts of unnecessary toxic waste.

Sunlight is headquartered in Greece, where the situation has been particularly dire in recent times. Four years ago, just 51 per cent of used scrap batteries were legally recycled or collected, compared to the European average figure of 95 per cent, with the remaining 49 per cent suspected to have been disposed of or recycled illegally.

We knew this had to change, which is why we created our own EMAS-certified recycling facility for lead acid batteries in 2014. This allowed us to collect and recycle approximately 18,000 tons of batteries in the first three years of operation alone.

For manufacturers, facilities such as this are an obvious choice. On average, those in the sector can recycle up to 95 per cent of lead-acid batteries. Not only does this achieve vertical integration of the lead supply, but also provides better control over the composition and quality of lead alloys. As well as providing better control over the delivery timelines of lead needed to produce new batteries, inhouse recycling also comes with an economic benefit – the reduced importing cost of the lead needed to make new batteries.

At Sunlight, by applying this circular economy model, we produce 60 per cent of our Battery production Unit’s demand in lead.

While we are proud of what we’ve achieved with Sunlight Recycling, we won’t be able to overturn the battery waste crisis alone. We need the broader battery industry and the overall business community to work together and ensure that our environmental impact is at an absolute minimum – rather than relying purely on government efforts, or worse, leaving the problem at the door of our consumers and customers.

Investing in recycling facilities is vital, and public education is also an important measure to engage wider audiences with an understanding of the scale of the problem – and how to resolve it.

In 2016, we launched Green Mission to do precisely this: we wanted to engage and inform not only other companies, but also the general public about the importance of recycling lead acid batteries to the environment. Specifically, we wanted to emphasise the key role these audiences can play in the process, thereby increasing the legal collection of lead acid batteries for safe recycling and minimising the impact on the environment.

With 67 registered Green Mission member-companies in only four years, throughout Greece and across various business sectors, it’s been encouraging not only to see an increased enthusiasm for and awareness of the need to recycle lead acid batteries, but also to hear that the experience has inspired companies involved to take a closer look at the way in which they recycle other material waste – and make improvements there too.

The pandemic has stimulated governments across the world to rebuild economies through the investment of green recovery packages. So, if we’re serious about making this a reality, it is essential for manufacturers to ensure they are adopting sustainable electric power storage in their efforts to improve future supply chains.