Charged with recycling

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Call2Recycle Inc.’s Carl Smith shares the battery stewardship organization’s successes during its 20-year history and its current and future challenges.

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June 2, 2015

Product stewardship is not a new concept for a number of battery manufacturers and manufacturers of devices that contain rechargeable batteries. Since 1994, these companies—nearly 300 as of this year—have been working with Atlanta-based Call2Recycle Inc. (originally known as the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.), which calls itself North America’s first and largest battery stewardship program, to collect and recycle batteries and cellphones at no cost to municipalities, businesses and consumers. The 501(c)(4) nonprofit public service organization is funded by battery and product manufacturers that Call2Recycle says are committed to responsible recycling.

Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, has more than 35 years’ experience in environmental issues, program development, advocacy, corporate communications and technology. His leadership of this collaborative, multi-industry effort has helped to define what a successful product stewardship program looks like and has helped to shape corporate stewardship and sustainability nationwide. Smith’s commitment to engage a broader set of stakeholders increased Call2Recycle’s recognition and positioned it as a model for other product stewardship groups.

In the Q&A that follows, Smith shares Call2Recycle’s successes during its first 20 years and offers a glimpse of what lies ahead for the stewardship organization.

Recycling Today (RT): Call2Recycle Inc., celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. What are the organization’s accomplishments you are most proud of during that time? In which areas are you looking to improve your performance?

Carl Smith (CS): I am most proud of the fact that environmentally committed people across North America have helped us divert more than 100 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of batteries from the solid waste stream—that’s equal to the weight of almost 650 fully loaded Boeing 737s. Last year also marked the 18th consecutive year that we have had year-over-year increases in the volume of batteries recycled. We have a lot of achievements we can be proud of in our history.

Our recent collection milestones signify that our fundamental approach to recycling has stood the test of time. We now serve 61 jurisdictions in North America with 34,000 active drop-off sites. We are proud of the program we have developed over time and the number and diversity of our stakeholders that support the highest standards of environmental responsibility.

But we still need to do a better job influencing the recycling habits of consumers. In the jurisdictions where we have had the greatest collection success, we still only collect approximately one-third of the batteries sold into the marketplace. We must continue to work to unlock the positive behaviors of consumers and convince them to be more attentive to recycling.
 

RT: What factors have contributed to Call2Recycle’s success?

CS: I believe our 20 years of success is derived from our continued focus on balancing the needs of our three major constituencies: industry stewards, collection sites and the public/government. We have done this by building industry partnerships and educating consumers and businesses on the importance of keeping batteries out of the landfills.

Our success can also be traced directly to the investment of time, money and ideas of our industry stewards. Our founding five members have been the bedrock of the program since day one. They provide the financial support that enables us to promote the responsible recycling of electronic products and batteries and deliver overall leadership on this issue in the marketplace.
 

RT: What are your biggest issues today?

CS: Two issues stand out from the rest.

First, batteries are increasingly embedded not only into electronics, such as tablets, smartphones and laptops, but also into clothing, buildings and everyday items. This trend presents challenges. The batteries often cannot be easily extracted prior to disposal, yet there are often not enough programs or processes available to properly recycle the host products.

Second, we continue to face challenges ensuring all parties that place batteries into the market participate in ensuring the proper disposal of their products. Too many potentially obligated stewards take advantage of the commitment of those who have stepped up to promote and pay for the recycling of their products. These “free-riders” harm our program’s economics.
 

RT: What are Call2Recycle and its existing partners doing to address the issue of free-riders?

CS: First and foremost, we are trying to get state government environmental agencies to enforce laws that are on the books.

No. 2, we have sought passage of model legislation that would strengthen the state’s and our ability to enforce legislation. In that model legislation is a concept known as “private right of action,” which would allow stewardship organizations to seek reimbursement from nonparticipating companies for the costs it occurs in handling their battery collections and recycling.
 

RT: How many collection sites currently participate in the program? Do retailers have to fulfill specific criteria?

CS: Maintaining a convenient, accessible collection network is one of our primary objectives. Currently, approximately 90 percent of residents live within 10 miles of one of our 34,000 drop-off public locations in the U.S. and Canada. We are working hard to increase that number to 95 percent.

We are looking for collection sites that are actively committed to promoting and recycling batteries in their communities. We support their efforts with our marketing programs. One of our best tools for encouraging participation is our online site locator, where anyone can type in a ZIP code and find the closest retail collection sites to recycle their batteries.
 

RT: How many battery producers belong to the program and what is their role?

CS: Currently, we have more than 300 industry stewards in our program. These are manufacturers of batteries or products with batteries.

The stewards are the foundation of the Call2Recycle program because they provide both the financial support that enables us to promote the responsible recycling of electronic products and batteries when they reach their end of life and the overall leadership on this issue in the marketplace. In return, we help them to meet the compliance requirements of state and provincial regulations regarding batteries and to support corporate sustainability goals.

RT: How many processors and sorters do you work with to recycle collected batteries? What do you look for in the companies that you contract with?

CS: Currently, we utilize five sorters and five processors in the U.S. and Canada. (Two companies both sort and process.) We continuously monitor them—they are held to extremely high standards for sorting and processing our batteries. Each location is regularly audited by an independent third party to ensure it follows Call2Recycle’s stringent requirements.

In addition to our overall standards, we seek to develop a network that provides critical geographic coverage to make our program as efficient as possible.
 

RT: What changes have you seen in terms of collected materials over time?

CS: When we began collections in 1994, we accepted only nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries; we now collect six different battery types, including the lithium-ion (Li-Ion) batteries used in most portable electronics.

Behind the scenes, we have significantly expanded our recycling infrastructure, including the mix of processing facilities; developed rigorous transport and safety guidelines; and engaged an ever increasing pool of obligated stewards in supporting our program.

Looking ahead, we face a changing landscape driven by the explosive growth of mobile devices with embedded batteries and the increasing requirement for end-of-life disposal of all consumer portable batteries (both rechargeable and alkaline).

We face these challenges by sticking to what we know best: always striving to be a best-in-class operation that encourages people to recycle, offering fair and equitable pricing to our stewards and constantly improving the convenience and accessibility of our retail and municipal collection network.
 

RT: What issues do you see as foremost for a stewardship organization like yours?

CS: One of the most pressing issues for Call2Recycle is the lack of harmonization of regulatory policies and enforcement throughout the U.S. and Canada. For example, we don’t see a common definition of “battery” and which batteries are subject to regulation. This landscape is continually changing. More municipal governments are looking at manufacturers to absorb their costs in collecting, sorting, recycling and disposing of batteries to the industry. This movement, known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), has already swept across Canada and Europe and is spreading to the U.S.

To achieve this, several states and provinces are considering and enacting legislation to mandate that companies that either manufacture batteries or include them in the products they sell, to finance and operate the take-back programs. Even the definition of what a “producer” is—the organizations are responsible under these programs—is under discussion. For instance, in 2014, Vermont became the first U.S. state to pass legislation requiring producers of single-use batteries to develop and finance a battery take-back and recycling program in the state. Call2Recycle submitted a plan in May to collect single-use batteries on behalf of our industry stewards. If approved, we will begin providing single-use battery recycling (in addition to the current rechargeable battery recycling program) Jan. 1, 2016.

In response to this lack of synchronization, the battery manufacturing industry last June introduced a model bill for battery recycling. This bill consolidates rechargeable and primary battery recycling under a single program, improving consumer convenience and reducing operational and compliance costs.

One benefit for the industry is that the model bill includes provisions that would reduce the number of free-riders not participating in a qualified program.

We have already seen this bill go on legislative dockets in three states and expect many more states to follow.
 

RT: How do you ensure a uniform approach to recycling in your program?

CS: We have adopted two of the highest standards of responsible recycling in the world: Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) Standard and the Basel Action Network (BAN) e-Stewards Standard.

We were certified under the most recent R2 standard, R2:2013, which outlines a set of principles and stringent guidelines to promote and assess responsible practices in the areas of environmental and public health, worker health and safety, security and the downstream recycling process.

To be certified we had to meet the requirements of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14001 and of the Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Services (OHSAS) 18001.
 

RT: What does the future of battery recycling look like for Call2Recycle?

CS: The next step will be to apply our expertise in battery recycling to surmount the challenges of the future: an explosion in the use of mobile devices that rely on batteries, the increasing trend whereby batteries are embedded into host products and a growing movement that demands that manufacturers be responsible for the end-of-life disposal of batteries.

Call2Recycle will continue to leverage its expertise to bring together the many players in this game—consumers, manufacturers, retailers and governments—to agree on future solutions that ensure batteries are disposed safely and responsibly.
 

RT: When you refer to third-party audits, are you taking about audits conducted through R2 or e-Stewards programs?

CS: We, generally speaking, will use a third party to confirm the recycling data and performance characteristics of our recyclers regardless of certification. CHWMEG (www.chwmeg.org) periodically audits recyclers, and we subscribe to that service to monitor our recyclers.

We have a separate R2 audit for supporting paperwork and documentation. It is not purely environmental, as it also is quality systems and documentation audit.

For new processors, we use a third-party consultant to perform an on-site review.

Processors are audited to death by us. Each audit mechanism approaches things a bit differently.

We will only work with R2 certified recyclers. As the industry program, we have always had a slightly higher bar to meet to ensure we are doing things responsibility.
 

RT: When did you begin accepting cellphones for recycling and how has their percentage changed over the years in terms of the overall composition of collected material?

CS: We began recycling cellphones in 2004—just over 10 years ago. We launched the program in New York City, which collected 48,000 cellphones between Earth Day and Dec. 31 of that year. From 2004 and 2014, we collected more than 600,000 pounds (272,155 kilograms) of cellphones across North America.

Depending on their condition, the cellphones are either refurbished or resold. We recycle phones that can’t be refurbished, and all proceeds help fund the cellphone collection program and public education.
 

RT: Do you have data on the percentage of cellphones collected and recycled or reused through your program? Who are you working with to refurbish and resell these devices?

CS: We’ve collected about 250,000 million, or more than 600,000 pounds. One in 10 is refurbished and the rest are recycled. The number of cellphones refurbished is low because of our BAN commitment, which won’t allow electronic waste to be shipped overseas. We work with The Wireless Alliance to recycle the cellphones received through our program.
 

RT: What are you doing to address the issues related to embedded batteries? How do these devices complicate what Call2Recycle is doing?

CS: That is a very complex and complicated issue.

The brand responsible for putting a battery in the marketplace is the party responsible for funding the recycling of the battery through Call2Recycle. If a battery is sold with product, it is the product manufacturer and not the battery manufacturer that is responsible. That is historically how we’ve dealt with that issue.

Now you’re seeing batteries sewn into fabrics for clothing and in kids’ shoes. I’m not sure we’ve fully explored how we’re going to handle those circumstances. We can’t take back handbags or kids’ shoes with battery-operated mechanisms in them.

Heretofore, states with battery legislation say the stewardship organization is responsible for ensuring companies can participate in the program. Going after them will be the next part.
 

RT: How are EPR initiatives affecting Call2Recycle programs? What kind of role can Call2Recycle play in EPR laws?

CS: They are affecting them in a whole lot of ways, including how they are financed to how they are physically organized. In order to keep costs down and be as effective and efficient as possible, we run highly centralized program; operations, IT and customer service all are centralized. Given the demands of regulators, we had to decentralize services and the organization to try to better respond to the particular phenomenon. Battery recycling has taken a voluntary approach in the U.S., and as a consequence, collection rates and reporting have not been as central to our day-to-day life as they have become under EPR initiatives.
 

RT: Are battery manufacturers successfully closing the loop and using the materials recovered through your program in the manufacturing process?

CS: In February, Energizer announced the first line of batteries to use postconsumer battery content. It has affirmed that high-performance alkaline batteries can be made through a more sustainable, closed-loop process.

We also see the cobalt, cadmium and lead currently extracted when processing rechargeable batteries used as inputs by battery manufacturers to make more rechargeable batteries.

These closed-looped processes enable a more “circular economy,” where the use of virgin materials is minimized.

 

Call2Recycle’s “2014 Annual Report: 20 Years of Product Stewardship” is available at www.call2recycle.org/wp-content/uploads/2014-Annual-Report_English.pdf.

 


Carl Smith is CEO and president of Call2Recycle, Atlanta. More information is available at www.call2recycle.org.