The holiday season is upon us! Thus, many children, grown-ups, and young-at-heart adults are guaranteed to soon be reminded of two things:
First, toys – big or small – are almost always totally over-packaged; for the week that follows, bins and municipal waste management infrastructure will be swimming in cardboard, plastic and those annoying little ties that bind said products to said cardboard.
Second, there are never enough batteries in the home to satisfy the immediate operation of all new toys and gadgets on Christmas Day. At some point during the festive period, likely millions of people worldwide will be hunting for AAA batteries in remote controls, gadgets, and small appliances – only for the demand to fall away as soon as it began a few days later.
In general, the free world’s relationship with old-style batteries is fractious. Not only do we find ourselves devoid of them in ‘critical’ moments, but we are rarely responsible when we do have them, and especially when they come to the end of their life.
According to campaigning charity Hubbub, there are staggering 178 million batteries currently being hoarded in UK homes, with many millions more being shoved in the bin. This throw-away attitude is thought to be largely because most (less than half) of us have no idea that household batteries are made up of some pretty valuable heavy metals – including lead, cadmium, mercury and zinc – all of which can reused.
Crucially, our batteries are toxic too. They pose a big threat to the plants and animals that may encounter them, and can toxify water courses if they are not disposed of properly. Yet, half of people throw them into the regular waste bin, ending up in landfill.
A campaign called Bring Back Heavy Metal has put the issue on the map, encouraging people to make better use of existing battery recycling infrastructure. Most of the big retailers, including Asda, B&Q, Marks & Spencer and Morrisons, have been catering for battery take-back, responsible disposal or recycling, for ages now. Yet, in 2016 just 44 per cent of the UK’s used batteries were collected for recycling. Clearly this needs to change.
Good news comes again from the lithium-ion battery. It has, in many product categories, superseded the toxic-filled batteries of old. Just 25 years ago lithium-ion batteries didn’t even exist. Now, they are ubiquitous, found in everything from tablet computers and mobile phones, to electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.
There’s good reason for the growing followers of lithium-ion batteries. Given their high energy density and high voltage, people can power increasingly sophisticated devices. They also last a long time and are much greener, containing no polluting metals. No wonder Apple, Lenovo and Samsung have made lithium-ion their battery of choice across their vast range of products. Meanwhile, Tesla has just completed construction of the world’s largest lithium ion battery in Australia.
But while new technology boosts productivity and enhances efficiency, there is a danger that our relationship to batteries and the way in which we use and dispose of them will remain the same.
So, what happens when lithium-ion batteries reach the end of their life? Not enough good stuff, says Amrit Chandan, the co-founder of Aceleron, a business that hopes to shake up the way people make use of low-cost energy storage. He says that, currently, lithium-ion battery recycling is not economically attractive enough, given how complex it is to recover and make use of the lithium dust contained within.
But, crucially, there is still a big waste problem attached to battery, with units perceived to be ‘dead’ merely thrown out, rather than being used for a different application. “A battery pack is generally made up of a number of battery cells, and often it is only one of those that has run dead or is no longer fit for purpose – but it drags down the rest,” according to Chandan.
Aceleron, run by Chandan and his business partner Carlton Cummins, can efficiently test which cells are good and which ones are not so good. It then takes the good ones, and packages them up in a safe and secure way before reselling them at a competitive cost. Currently, the batteries Aceleron is processing have 70 per cent of their ‘goodness’ intact. This makes them perfectly useful in a number of applications. Just because a battery is not powerful enough to run an electric car, that doesn’t mean it couldn't drive an electric bicycle, for example.
The offering is even more useful given the severe lack of recycling facilities in Europe (there are just five facilities right now taking lithium-ion batteries). A fairly clunky strategy for at least one big car manufacturer is just to store its old batteries in a big container and forget about them, according to Chandan.
Our relationship with batteries is also a major concern in the developing world. In Kenya, up to 11 million lead acid batteries are currently being used in an informal way – taken from old cars and then used once or twice and thrown away. Because there is often no effective regulation in place, such batteries are often smelted on open air furnaces. According to World Health Organisation figures, a quarter of deaths in developing nations are a result of industrial gas poisoning, many from lead batteries being burned on open air furnaces.
Companies like Aceleron – whose technology is currently being piloted by an e-bike company in London, as well as a large-scale electronics source for laptop charging – will play a useful role in extending the life of our batteries.
But it is our long-neglected relationship with batteries, new and old, that could do with a recharge.
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