It’s hard to believe that we celebrated the first Earth Day nearly half a century ago. In 1970, U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (Wisc.-D) led the event as an environmental teach-in on April 22. In the decades since, that teach-in has grown to more than 193 participating countries.
Today, millions of people celebrate Earth Day with community cleanups and recycling drives. But as the movement has matured, there’s a growing realization that recycling alone is not the end goal. It requires the manufacturing sector to shift to a sustainable circular economy. That means moving from a linear economic model of take-make-use-dispose, to a circular one of make-use-recycle-remanufacture.
“… a low-carbon future [is] unthinkable without batteries, a core technological enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Global Battery Alliance
Circularity Grows Business
The “closed-loop” model is showing remarkable growth as the new economic ideal for an environmentally sustainable business.
Accenture has noted that a circular economy “could unlock $4.5 trillion of economic growth” by 2030. In a circular economy, the value of products and materials are maintained for as long as possible, and waste and resource use is minimized. In the lead battery industry, when a battery has reached the end of its first life, its materials are kept within the economy to be used again and again to create further value. A new lead battery is comprised of 80% recycled material!
Worldwide, executives are paying attention. In February, ING Bank released a study that found the number of U.S. companies embedding sustainability in decision-making had doubled between 2018 and 2019. The study reports, “There has been a marked jump in the number of executives who say that sustainability is influencing business growth: 85% say this today, compared to just 48% in our 2018 study.”
Lead Batteries Model Circular Economy
Thankfully, business leaders can look to the lead battery industry for a map forward. Lead battery manufacturers and recyclers are proud to be among the 16% of U.S. firms that have adopted a circular economy framework. The industry hopes to serve as a model to emerging battery chemistries (and other industries). This is especially important as our need for energy storage in the renewable energy, automotive, and digital technology sectors grows. It will demand a mix of battery technologies. In fact, the Global Battery Alliance, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, has deemed batteries as a core technology that enables the shift to decarbonize the energy and transportation systems.
Benefits of Lead Battery Circularity
There are many, but foremost:
- Conserving resources, creating new value. Nearly 100% of all lead batteries are recycled, creating a steady stream of materials for making new batteries. (Lithium-ion batteries follow a linear economic model, with a less-than-5% recycling rate, and materials are not reused.)
- Reducing carbon emissions. By 2050, a more circular economy can cut emissions from heavy industry by 56% in the EU alone.
- Maintaining national security. Using recycled materials fosters energy independence and contributes to a more reliable secondary supply chain. Approximately 70% of the lead used by U.S. manufacturers is sourced from domestic recycling facilities.
- Boosting the economy. Lead batteries have been recycled for more than 100 years and model a closed-loop system for other batteries and industries.
Designed for Success
Fostering a circular economy means committing to continual product improvement. As lead battery manufacturers innovate and design new batteries, they collaborate with recyclers to design batteries for recycling and resource efficiency. Major U.S. lead battery manufacturers and suppliers are also collaborating on research with Argonne National Laboratory to improve lead battery performance efficiency.
Sustainable Practices, Smaller Footprint
In addition to creating products that contribute to a circular economy, the lead battery industry incorporates a variety of sustainable practices that lessen the environmental pressures exerted by battery manufacturing and recycling.
- Michigan-based Advanced Battery Concepts has developed and patented GreenSeal® technology, which reduces the amount of lead by 46%, making the battery lighter, with quicker charging, higher power, and saving the average vehicle more than 20 gallons of fuel a year.
- East Penn Manufacturing in Pennsylvania was the first to invent a patented process to recycle battery acid. The company now recycles millions of gallons annually for use in new batteries. East Penn also creates new market value by producing a liquid fertilizer solution for agricultural use from the sulfur fumes captured during lead smelting.
- George-based Exide Technologies has a global footprint and is installing groundbreaking solar installations at their production and recycling facilities in Portugal. The production facility project is one of the largest self-consumption generation units with storage in Europe. Upon completion, it will generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of more than 2,000 homes.
- In Minnesota, Gopher Resource has set an example by investing nearly $5 million in a storm water collection and reuse distribution system. Annually, the system saves nearly 17 million gallons of water by using collected storm water instead.
Upping the Sustainability Benchmark
On this Earth Day, let’s recognize that lead batteries, a product that got its start at the beginning of the 20th century, continue to evolve. Through ongoing innovation, lead batteries are the aspirational benchmark for a dynamic circular economy business model of the 21st century.
Global Battery Alliance Report: How Circular Thinking Could Change U.S. Business Models (ING)
Ellen MacArthur Foundation: What is a circular economy? A framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design
How circular thinking could change U.S. business models. (ING)
Infographic: Circular Economy of Lead Batteries