Batteries have become completely integrated in our lives. One could say we live in a cordless culture! We use them to power everything from children’s toys to household tools, from portable speakers to vehicles of all sorts. Nearly every bit of technology that we use when we are on the go relies on them.
But what happens to those batteries when we are finished using them? One of three things actually; they are thrown away into landfill sites, stored away in boxes and forgotten about, and some are recycled. It’s option number three that has been the business of Battery Solutions for more than 25 years.
“We are America’s largest sorter and recycler of batteries. We collect any type of battery which also makes us somewhat unique. There is no battery we turn away,” says Thomas Bjarnemark, CEO of Battery Solutions.
“I like to say we will take every chemistry, every volume, every type of battery ever made,” adds Danielle Spalding, Director of Marketing and Communications for the company.
The company started in 1992 in Wayne, Michigan. In those early days the founder of the company, Chris Sova, would collect, recycle and resell car batteries. From there, the company expanded into household batteries – anything from alkaline batteries to laptop batteries to power tool batteries and beyond.
“We started expanding into other markets at the same time all the wireless towers were being built. So there were an enormous amount of batteries being used by the wireless technology,” Bjarnemark says.
The service that Battery Solutions is offering is a big deal when you consider the facts about how we use and dispose of batteries. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, every year Americans purchase nearly 3 billion household batteries like D, C, AA and AAA.
The scary part is that, on average, each person in the United States will throw out eight batteries a year. Doing the math, that adds up to about 2.6 billion batteries tossed into landfill each year in the U.S. alone.
This is especially hard to swallow when it turns out that most of these batteries can be almost completely recycled. “We get 97 percent back in useful materials from the alkaline batteries that we recycle,” Bjarnemark says.
And when he says 97 percent is recoverable, that includes nearly everything that goes into a battery, from the steel casing to the manganese found inside, right down to the labels that appear on the outside of the batteries. These materials are then sold to manufacturers to make new products. The manganese and zinc, for example, can be used in agriculture fertilizer.
It is not only important to recycle the batteries themselves, it is also important to do it in a way that minimizes the environmental footprint. After all, how much does it help the environment if you have to use huge amounts of energy that comes from coal-fired power plants to recycle something?
To avoid this scenario, the Battery Solutions team uses a unique process that allows them to recycle batteries at room temperature. This eliminates the need for high heat and significant energy that would otherwise be needed to recycle batteries.
The company has also put safety and innovation at the forefront of its activities. While lithium-ion is in many batteries and widely used, it can also be potentially explosive.
“We have been working on technology for a safety device that will help during transport or storage,” Spalding says. “If anything from the lithium-ion battery is detected, we can very quickly know where it is occurring so that it can be put into a safe location.”
Working safely and efficiently is something that really hits home for the company as it manages the logistics and transportation of the batteries around their customers’ schedules. They are also prepared to go to almost any length to retrieve batteries for their customers.
“Last winter we had a telecommunications customer that needed battery removal from at a remote site in Wisconsin,” Bjarnemark says. “These were very heavy batteries, that weighed over 1,000 pounds. Because of where they were located, no vehicle could reach that site in the winter, so we used horse-drawn wagons to get the batteries out of the site.”
Originally from Stockholm, Sweden, Bjarnemark joined the company in 2014 as CEO. He is an engineer by trade who specializes in energy supply and backup power. Bjarnemark also has a great deal of experience in bringing wireless technology to America through his work on building the first wireless networks.
“I got to sit on meetings about the future of wireless networks and communication and mobility that was going to change the world,” he says of helping to pioneer the technology. Now he gets the same feeling from his work in recycling batteries.
“I really do believe that sustainable technology and the circular economy will have an equally large impact as the internet and wireless communication.”
The idea of a circular economy is a concept that has roots in criticisms of our current “linear” economic model and the environmental impact it is having on our planet.
We either dig up, chop down or harvest resources from the earth that go into factories to make things that we buy for our homes. After using these things in our homes for a while, we throw them away and replace them with new things.
Up to this point, the linear economy has created a lot of wealth for the fabled middleclass in North America, Europe and parts of Asia, and while this way of doing things is fine and good if you have an unlimited supply of resources, the earth has only so much raw materials to go around.
The impact of taking things from the planet without replacing them will only grow as a new middleclass is now rising in Latin America and China. That added population will mean there will be about 3 billion middleclass consumers who are also looking to buy stuff for their homes and then replace it.
“We will need more than four new planets to keep up in the linear economic model. And obviously we don’t have four new planets,” Bjarnemark says.
That is why businesses like Battery Solutions are becoming increasingly important in all of our lives. Finding ways to reuse the materials that we have taken from earth is the only way to manage the limited resources that we have while keeping our society as we know it humming along.
That is the idea behind a circular economy, eliminating the waste of throwing things out by continually recycling and reusing them. It has been suggested that we can do this without necessarily changing the quality of life for people.
Futurists predict there will be a tipping point where our demand for things will outstrip what we can take from the earth, but the important thing is to try change things now before it comes to that.
“One of the most important things we need to focus on is education,” Spalding says. “We are seeing sustainability officers at very large organizations. That also need to be done by small- and mid-sized business. So we are trying to work with as many teams as we can to get the word out.”
Part of this process is also teaming up with institutions such as the University of Michigan which is one of the few universities in the United States to focus so heavily on battery recycling.
“I think that in America, the average person really wants to do the right thing, but they don’t know how,” Bjarnemark says.
“In the community where I live, I have no idea how to recycle my batteries. I bring them to work. As governments and businesses work together to raise awareness of why it is so important to recycle among consumers, we will start to see a real change.”