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US battery collection rises 11% during coronavirus crisis

Call2Recycle collected a record 3 700 tonnes of used batteries for recycling in the US in 2020, an unexpected bonus in a year that saw many industries nose-dive. Another record was primary battery collections increasing 77%. Linda Gabor, executive vice president of external relations, looks back on a rocky but interesting year.

Is it a big surprise that collections went up 11%? 

‘Absolutely. We’d expected they would decline during the global pandemic and could never have imagined we would have a record-breaking battery collection year.’

Which states performed the best?

‘We have not yet developed a “top ten” for 2020. In previous years, Vermont ranked first, followed by Delaware, Tennessee, Minnesota, New Hampshire, California, Pennsylvania, Washington, Maryland and Texas. What we already know is that retailers and other businesses that were deemed ‘essential’ generated the strongest collection increases during the year.’

What were your initial expectations for 2020, pre Covid-19?

‘We planned for an increase based on a number of strategies we had put into place but not as remarkable as 11% – regardless of the coronavirus outbreak. In retrospect, some of these strategies, such as launching more safety related services, have been helpful during the pandemic when consumers and organisations have had to hold onto batteries longer than expected.’

Do you think you took the right approach in tackling the pandemic?

‘Like many others navigating Covid-19, Call2Recycle has been challenged with how to conduct “normal business” when things have seemed anything but normal. Overall, we are pleased with how we handled this unusual situation. As the virus began spreading throughout the US, Call2Recycle immediately deployed contingency plans to minimise programe disruptions while taking the necessary precautions to mitigate risks for our staff and full community. 

For instance, we instituted mandatory work from home and no travel policies for all staff. We offered flexible work hours to staff, particularly for those who were primary caregivers or had children at home during the pandemic. We also really focused on communicating with all of our key stakeholders. I’m glad we have stayed positive through it all. You could say we are taking things one day at a time.’

Was the organisation impacted significantly?

‘Call2Recycle was very fortunate to be able to maintain regular operations across the US with Covid-19 only directly affecting our staff mildly. Remote technology solutions allowed our team to work from home and maintain a high level of service for collection sites, stewards, and consumers who required programme assistance. The biggest effect was that we had to hold back from launching new service offerings.’

Did Call2Recycle campaign during the crisis to boost collections and keep people involved? 

‘Call2Recycle pivoted its public education and awareness campaigns from “Drop off your batteries for recycling” to encouraging consumers to refrain from visiting recycling locations and instead educating them on how to safely protect and store their batteries until recycling options became widely available again. We also emphasised some of our safety related services to support the reality of 2020.’ 

What kind of places are the most popular collection points?

‘Public sites, such as retailers and municipalities (HHW or solid waste centres) remain the most popular collection sites. Consumers particularly find it convenient to drop off used batteries when they are purchasing a new battery or battery-power product. For private sites (those that don’t collect from the public), we have seen an increase from the manufacturing sector.’

What is the quality of batteries collected?

‘It varies greatly. We are still astounded by how old some batteries are that are finally dropped off for recycling. However, there isn’t really an ‘average quality’ that we can document. We see a wide range of contamination in our collection containers, from old gift cards to e-cigarettes with nicotine cartridges still intact.’ 

How do you view the market for battery recycling at the moment?

‘All the evidence we’ve seen indicates that there is heightened consumer awareness on batteries and the need to recycle them, brought about both by concerns for battery safety and the general increase usage of batteries in the marketplace. Governments worldwide are also signaling greater interest in battery recycling.’

How do you view the future in North America?

‘In the last couple of years, there have been several new entrants into the battery recycling market in North America, particularly focused on lithium-ion batteries.  We consider this to be a very positive development, injecting both innovation and price competition into the marketplace.  While much of this growth can be attributed to the focus on electric vehicle batteries, the change has had a very positive impact on recycling consumer batteries, too.’

Are there big differences in best practices and challenges when comparing the US and Canada?

‘The biggest difference between the US and Canada is that most of the provinces in Canada have regulations for managing batteries at end-of-life whereas only a handful of US states have enacted similar regulations. In addition, Canadians generally are more aware of environmental issues and the need to recycle compared to the US which has a significant impact on education and communication campaigns on either side of the border.’

How do you think collections could be further improved?

‘There is always room for improvement. Our biggest focus right now is increasing convenience.  We have to find a way to make it easier for consumers to recycle their batteries without compromising safety – for instance, not in kerbside bins.’

What recycling companies do you work with right now?

‘Whenever possible, it is Call2Recycle’s preference to ship, sort, and process materials as close as possible to where the materials are generated, while maintaining our high safety and environmental standards. While Call2Recycle maintains a diverse network of approved service providers, we regularly review our infrastructure and opportunities to add new sorters and recyclers. Below is an overview of our current partners.’ 

Call2Recycle has often attended international recycling conferences to share know-how with industry players. How is life without these events? 

‘We certainly miss networking in person with others as it’s an important part of the business. While we have taken part in virtual tradeshows, conferences and webinars and have adapted quite well to this new format, we look forward to the days when we can be in the presence of other stakeholders again.’

Looking back, if you could have done one thing differently in 2020, what would it be?

‘Retrospectively, we would have liked to have identified and deployed more strategies that facilitated collaboration amongst employees working remotely. We believe this would have sped up our launches for new services and solutions.’

Finally, what are the main objectives for Call2Recycle for 2021 and beyond?

We have three notable objectives:

  • We have to understand, manage and serve markets for larger batteries that are heavier and more powerful than typical consumer batteries and that exceed regulatory limits on what can be safely handled in our typical containers. The world is increasingly being powered by batteries, much of it being driven by policies aimed at encouraging electrification across all sectors of the economy, through electric vehicles and bikes, for example. This creates new challenges but also opportunities to encourage more responsible recycling.
  • We have to find ways to make collections more convenient for consumers, particularly when more battery-powered products are being purchased online instead of through brick and mortar retailers.
  • We continue to be very focused on measures to improve battery safety, mitigating the risks for lithium-based fires. 

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