At Call2Recycle, which collects consumer batteries throughout North America, we’ve attempted to create a reasonable measure for assessing the accessibility of our collection sites. Looking at the prevailing literature and the recycling behaviors of the American public, the organization aspires to establish a publicly available collection site within 10 miles of 95% of the population of any given area. Currently, the program has publicly accessible collection sites within reach of 91% of the US population. While below our organizational standard, this measurement confirms two things: first, we are already making good progress and secondly, the larger goal is achievable. The no-cost, public collection program is available at more than 30,000 collection locations in the US and is growing so that the standard can be achieved within the next five years.
Compare this with some of the European countries. In Germany, a country with less than one-third the population of the US, a comparable battery collection program has more than 70,000 publicly accessible sites. It’s no coincidence that Germany collects at least twice as many batteries as we collect in the US.
Some suggest that the answer is expanding curbside collection, which is, perhaps, the ultimate in accessibility. Certainly, there is merit in an approach like this but it also has shortcomings. First, there is a safety and liability risk in co-mingling relative benign waste—like newspaper—with a material like a lithium ion battery that can, under certain conditions, trigger a “thermal event.” Second, the greater the breadth of material collected at curbside (or any other location), the more challenging it is to properly sort the material to maximize its residual value in secondary markets. Higher value material can be cost-effectively recycled at curbside; materials that municipal hazardous waste programs must pay to process can create potentially significant cost issues. The curbside collection of mattresses is an example of cost-prohibitive recycling.
Nonetheless, in the end, increasing accessibility of collection sites is critical to any strategy to optimize collections. But it’s not the only strategy – if we build it, the consumer still may not come (with apologies to “Field of Dreams”). Strategies like public education, government advocacy and other measures are also essential to achieve greater results. Yet all the data continues to show that the easier it is to recycle, the more likely it is that it will occur.