Creating a closed-loop process to recycle 99% of lead batteries

Ville Ste-Catherine battery recycling facility
Terrapure’s Ville Ste-Catherine battery recycling facility.

Lead batteries are a key element of our economy and our society. They power everything from cars to industrial equipment to golf carts, bikes and more. Worldwide, lead batteries are used in a billion vehicles to start their engines and power on-board electronics.

While lead itself is hazardous, lead batteries are the most recycled product in North America, with a 99% recovery and recycling rate, according to Battery Council International. As such, lead batteries are a poster child for the circular economy and an environmental success story.

That success recently led Canadian companies Terrapure Environmental and East Penn Canada to being named winners of a prestigious industry Project of the Year Award by Environment + Energy Leader, a publication dedicated to energy, environment and sustainability news.

East Penn and Terrapure have developed a closed-loop solution to recycle East Penn’s batteries. The two companies decided a “tolling” agreement was the best way to ensure a circular life cycle. Instead of leaving retailers or individuals to determine a recycling option for their spent lead-acid batteries, East Penn Canada uses a core charge to incent customers to return their batteries.

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Recycled lead is reconstituted to exacting specifications.

East Penn Canada collects spent batteries from its customers and ships them to Terrapure to break them down to their base components for recycling. Terrapure processes and refines the lead to East Penn’s specifications, and it is then returned to East Penn’s battery manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania for use in new batteries.

“This approach is a real win-win,” said Ross Atkinson, senior vice president of battery recycling at Terrapure. “It provides East Penn with a closed-loop recycling process for their batteries, ensuring a beneficial reuse of a valuable commodity, while also helping preserve a finite natural resource.”

The first step in the recycling process, after the used batteries are received at one of Terrapure’s two Canadian battery-recycling plants, involves crushing and breaking down the batteries into their constituent parts. These are plastic from the battery casings, acid and lead.

Plastics are separated, cleaned, broken down into small pellets and sold to be injection molded into new battery casings. The acid is drained, collected, chemically treated and sold for recycling, often to become sodium sulfate.

Lead is the most significant and valuable element in the battery. It is purified to 99.97% purity and reconstituted to exacting specifications into recycled lead for reuse in new batteries. East Penn is Terrapure’s largest customer for recycled lead.

At Terrapure’s Ville Ste-Catherine facility in Quebec, the lead-recycling process takes place by heating the recovered lead in two long-body rotary kilns, after which it goes into a refinery to refine the lead bullion and, finally, is cast into 30-kilogram ingots or one-tonne blocks.

Terrapure uses various industrial wastes found in the lead smelting process as substitutes for natural gas, oil, metallurgical coke or soda ash. Many of the materials received or generated in the recycling process, such as drums, pallets and other packing materials, are also reused on site or recycled.

“Not only does Terrapure’s recycling process provide a circular economy solution for a portion of East Penn’s lead batteries, it also takes 60% less energy to produce recycled lead, helping to reduce our carbon footprint,” said Mike Bouchard, president, East Penn Canada.

From collection to recycling to manufacturing, a recycled lead-acid battery is back on the market in 50 to 60 days. This partnership between Terrapure and East Penn generates significant closed-loop, circular economic value, as lead can be recycled infinitely.

Terrapure receives approximately 10 million batteries annually and produces 125,000 metric tonnes of recycled lead per year, recovering 99% of batteries in Canada and diverting them from the landfill.

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Read the full article in ES&E Magazine’s August/September 2020 issue:

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