How do Lead Batteries Create a Circular Economy?
Following a lead battery’s cradle-to-cradle (vs. cradle-to-grave) process demonstrates its circularity. In comparing sustainable practices across all life stages, no other battery chemistry equals lead batteries’ closed-loop process and remanufacturing success.
Research and innovation are critical components of a lead battery’s circular economy. The lead battery industry collaborates on significant research to reach the lead battery’s full potential. For example, lead battery life has increased by 30-35% in the last 20 years. Argonne National Laboratory and Missouri University of Science and Technology are among those spearheading research that will improve battery performance.
Another component of a lead battery’s circular economy involves designing for recycling, efficiency and remanufacture. As lead battery manufacturers innovate and design new batteries, they collaborate with others to design batteries for recycling and resource efficiency. This helps streamline the recycling of the battery’s key components (lead, plastic, acid) for reuse.
Sustainable practices throughout the product life cycle also contribute to a lead battery’s closed-loop success. The lead battery industry continually incorporates and adds to its sustainability practices to further lessen the environmental impact of manufacturing.
A steady supply of recycled lead battery components allows lead battery manufacturers to use safe, sustainable practices to make new batteries. Lead batteries are used in everything from renewable energy storage and hybrid and electric vehicles to telecommunications infrastructure and military applications. After lead batteries are spent, they are collected for recycling. The EPA ranks lead batteries as the most recycled consumer product in the U.S. A nation-wide infrastructure, high recycling awareness and the economic value inherent in lead battery components ensures consumers and industries return spent lead batteries to the collection system which in turn supplies manufacturers with a steady stream of materials for reuse.
Modern, closed-loop recycling keeps more than 122 million lead batteries from landfills each year. During the recycling process, the battery is broken down into its primary components: lead, plastic and acid, which are separated for reuse. The lead from spent batteries is melted, refined and poured into molds to create ingots (lead bricks) used to build new batteries. The plastic cover and case of a spent lead battery is crushed, cleaned, melted and formed into pellets to make new battery covers and cases. Spent acid is either recycled and reused in batteries, neutralized into water, or converted into sodium sulfate, an odorless powder used in laundry detergents, textiles and glass.
After the recycling process is complete, materials are ready for reuse. Every new lead battery is comprised of over 80% recycled material and the lead from these batteries can be infinitely recycled with no loss of performance. That, coupled with a recycling rate of nearly 100% greatly reduces the use of virgin materials, a key goal of the circular economy.
What is a Circular Economy?
In a traditional, linear economic model, products – including other types of batteries – are designed, used and disposed of. This creates excess waste based on a take-make-use-waste extractive industrial pattern. In contrast, lead batteries use a circular economic model. A circular economy promotes sustainable materials management throughout the life cycle of a product and relies on a make-use-recycle-remanufacture (or closed-loop) pattern.
In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible, and waste and resource use are minimized. When a battery has reached its end of life (EOL), its materials are kept within the economy, to be used again and again to create further value. In many cases, including the lead battery industry, product designers design for recycling and efficiency as a part of the initial product design anticipating use beyond EOL.
Why is a Circular Economy Important?
A circular economy, such as the lead battery industry, can reduce CO2 emissions, reduce the scale of the challenge of decarbonizing materials production, and contain the cost of achieving an industrial base compatible with a low-carbon economy.
As reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, global competition for finite resources will intensify as world population and economies grow. Research shows that 62% of U.S. firms are planning to move to a circular economy. The lead battery industry leads the curve by being among the 16% who have already adopted this sustainable business strategy.
Reusing recycled materials fosters energy independence and contributes to a more reliable secondary supply chain. This also helps to maintain national security by strengthening the resilience of power grids, Internet services, and databanks as they confront challenges of an increasingly digital economy.