Uncle Sam Wants You To Recycle The Dead Cellphones And Laptops In Your Junk Drawer

December 26, 2022

There’s little need to repeat all the drawbacks of the supply chain for lithium-ion batteries—the destructive and exploitive mining, the dependence on dubious governments, the increasing rarity of critical materials.

One bridge to next-generation batteries may lie in America’s junk drawers.

“If you're anything like me and my household, you have cellphones stashed in your drawers or old dead laptops stuck in your closets,” said Jessica Durham Macholz, a materials scientist with the ReCell Center, a government-industry collaboration dedicated to advancing battery recycling.

“We really need to start getting those back from people.”

The batteries in 166 cell phones contain enough cobalt to supply an electric-vehicle battery, Durham said, citing numbers from J.B. Straubel, the former chief technology officer of Tesla and the current founder of Redwood Materials, one of the U.S.’s largest battery recyclers.

“And just think about that. It might only take 30 households to get enough material to make part of an EV battery,” Durham said during a recent panel at Argonne National Laboratory. “So I think that's really exciting.”

Electric vehicles are new enough that most batteries in EVs have lifespan remaining before they enter the recycling circuit. That means new EVs are drawing upon that destructive and exploitive mining under dubious governments to collect increasingly rare critical materials. But the batteries in old cell phones, tablets and laptops could supply new EV batteries while laboratories scramble to find a better battery chemistry.

“Currently the U.S. relies heavily on other countries for these materials. We have very small reserves of these. So in a lot of cases, it's not even possible for us to provide these ourselves here in the U.S. Therefore, we really need to reduce our reliance on other countries. And to do that, we need to recycle batteries. So we've already mined and dug these materials outta the ground and put them into batteries. So we need to get those back out. We don't just want to throw those away because they are such limited resources.”

The U.S. has ameliorated demand for critical materials in part using scraps left over from manufacturing new batteries.

“One big source of material would be manufacturing scraps. So the waste that the battery industry is already producing, it's estimated that in the next three years by 2025, that over 80% of the material for recycling will be supplied by this waste or manufacturing scrap from the battery industry.”

But people can supply the remaining 20 percent, or more, by recycling old devices languishing in their homes.

“The ways we're using to try to get those devices back and collect them can still use a lot of work.” Durham said, “because since they're all in your houses, you're obviously not giving them up. So we need to really improve our collection practices.”

For now, she recommends Call2Recycle, a private, producer funded initiative to recycle batteries. Call2recycle.org maintains a map of the nearest and latest drop-off locations for all kinds of batteries.

“They have a big collection effort for collecting batteries. You'll see a lot of collection boxes at your local Home Depots and other places,” she said. “So that's a great resource for going to see where you can drop off all the electronic devices.”

Manufacturers and sellers including Apple and Google and Amazon also offer free recycling services.

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