July 23, 2012
material handling update | Batteries/Chargers

The basics of battery recycling

The basics of battery recycling

Lift truck battery given up the ghost? You can't just put it out with the trash. Here's what to do instead.

By Toby Gooley

No lift truck battery lasts forever. No matter how carefully monitored or well maintained a battery may be, there comes a time when it's best to call it quits. But once this costly piece of equipment has reached the end of its useful life, what should you do with it?

Industrial batteries contain materials that could potentially harm people, facilities, and the environment if not properly handled. So you can't simply put a used battery out with the trash. Nor can you burn it or chop it up like a discarded wooden pallet.

There's only one real option for disposing of worn-out lift truck batteries today: recycling. Battery recycling is far more complicated than the household version we're all familiar with. It's governed by federal, state, and municipal laws and regulations, and there are special considerations when handling and transporting used batteries. We can't get into all the technical details here, of course, but this look at battery-recycling basics will get you started.

How do you know when a lift truck battery is ready for recycling? A battery has reached the end of its useful life when it can no longer deliver 80 percent of its rated capacity, says Doug Bouquard, vice president and general manager of sales for East Penn's Motive Power Division. In simplified terms, the rated capacity refers to the number of amperes of electrical current a battery will deliver over a specified time period under specific temperature conditions.

There are plenty of tools and technologies for evaluating battery performance, but usually it's pretty evident when a battery has reached the end of the road. "If the forklift driver can't get a full shift from the battery and is wasting time looking for a better or fully charged battery during a shift, then it's not cost-effective [to keep using it]," says Tony Adams, manager for service operations at the battery manufacturer Enersys.

When it's time to send end-of-life batteries for recycling, Adams says, many people arrange for pickup through their lift truck dealers, or they call the battery manufacturer for assistance. Enersys, for example, will pick up a full truckload of used batteries; smaller loads typically move by less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier to one of the manufacturer's regional service centers. Companies that generate truckloads of used batteries also have the option of selling them to brokers, who consolidate batteries and resell them to lead smelters. A few large battery users sell directly to recyclers, Adams says.

For companies that buy batteries directly from a distributor, another option is to swap scrap batteries for credits toward the purchase of new ones. That's a good choice for anyone who's unlikely to accumulate a truckload, writes Ben Levitt of the battery broker Regency Metals in the July 2011 issue of MHEDA Journal. Regardless of who makes the arrangements, it's a good idea to get documentation confirming that specific batteries have been recycled; this will be useful in proving compliance with the laws and regulations.

Lead-acid batteries are virtually 100-percent recyclable, according to the industry association Battery Council International (BCI). In the typical recycling process, the battery is broken apart and the pieces go into a vat, where the lead and heavy materials fall to the bottom and the polypropylene plastic rises to the top.

The materials are handled in three separate streams. Plastic pieces are washed, dried, melted, and then extruded as plastic pellets, which are then used to manufacture new battery cases. Any parts containing lead are cleaned and then melted together in smelting furnaces. The molten lead is poured into ingot molds. Battery manufacturers melt the ingots and use the lead in the production of new batteries. Battery acid can be neutralized and turned into water, or it can be converted to sodium sulfate, a powder that's used in laundry detergent, glass, and textile manufacturing. (East Penn, manufacturer of the Deka line of batteries, operates a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency- and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection-permitted smelter facility that also collects the sulfur fumes and turns them into a liquid fertilizer.)

As you might expect when heavy metals and chemicals are involved, federal, state, and municipal regulators have a say in who handles used batteries and how they do it. While most of the regulations governing battery recycling are issued by the federal government, they are also enforced on the state level, says Bouquard. According to Battery Council International, 38 states have battery-recycling laws, and another five have disposal laws. (BCI's website includes links to some of the state agencies that oversee these activities.)

Don't assume that the federal authorities will be the toughest, cautions Adams of Enersys. "Some states are more stringent than the federal government, and some local regulations are more stringent than the state rules," he says.

The primary federal regulators include the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which governs safe handling and transportation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees battery recycling and disposal. End users must either use a licensed recycler or a licensed hazardous waste transporter and disposal facility that adhere to the applicable federal, state, and local regulations, Bouquard says.

Motor carriers are responsible for properly preparing and securing their loads of scrap batteries for recycling, and they must comply with the U.S. DOT's regulations governing transportation and handling in transit. But forklift fleet operators also have responsibilities to ensure safe shipment of used batteries. Sources consulted for this article offer the following recommendations:

  • Use good quality, sturdy pallets. Don't cut corners or costs just because the batteries are being scrapped; for safety's sake, use the same quality materials for handling scrap batteries as for new ones, says Adams.
  • Properly block and brace the batteries on the pallet and in the truck. This includes nailing wooden cleats around the battery to prevent sliding.
  • Make sure that the terminals cannot come in contact with metal. Metal banding that comes in contact with battery terminals could create sparks, causing a fire that could melt the plastic battery casing and expose acid, Adams notes. Insulate the banding with wood or cardboard. Some companies use plastic rather than metal bands.
  • Protect terminals with non-conductive caps, tape, or other insulating material to prevent shorting.
  • Tightly seal caps and be sure no fluid can escape. The aim is to prevent any potential contact with the battery electrolyte, which could result in a chemical burn, Bouquard explains.
  • Wear proper safety equipment at all times and be sure to follow warnings on the product labels.
  • Comply with all U.S. DOT regulations governing not just transportation but also handling, packing, documenting, and transferring batteries at the warehouse or other storage location.

For more detailed guidance about preparing batteries for recycling, contact an EPA-approved battery recycler. One good source of information is "Packaging and Securing Used Motive Batteries/Cells".

Lift truck battery disposal and recycling is a complicated activity, and we've only been able to scratch the surface in this article. Experts agree that the two most important areas to focus on are safety and regulatory compliance. They also recommend familiarizing yourself with the many information resources available—industry associations, of course, but also battery manufacturers and distributors, lift truck distributors, licensed battery recyclers and transporters, and so forth.

No matter how many hands get involved or which companies you turn to for advice and information, the ultimate goal is the same: handling and disposition of industrial batteries in a way that is safe for people, facilities, and the environment.

About the Author

Toby Gooley
Contributing Editor
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.

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