The vice president of Toxco recently returned from a spring trip to Europe but she wasn’t there to smell the flowers in Paris, she was giving a presentation to NATO Command.
Kathy Bruce, of Toxco Waste Management Ltd. in Trail, travelled to Brussels, Belgium in April to speak to NATO commanders on what they might be able to do with the millions of used lithium ion batteries left over in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade of military intervention in the region.
She’s suggesting they send them to Trail to be recycled.
“We did a presentation for the Canadian Department of Defence and that led to the NATO presentation,” said Bruce. “Right now it’s primarily the British military that is interested in our recycling plant but every country’s troops use the same battery. They’re standard military issue.”
The batteries in question are the BA 5590, a green, plastic covered brick about the same size and dimensions as two pounds of butter, stacked one atop the other.
Each soldier on patrol is issued two of these every day, one to power the various pieces of electronic equipment common to the modern military and another for backup. The batteries are single use only and are discarded after each patrol.
The battery packs power radio communications, GPS units, chemical agent monitors, night vision scopes, remote battlefield surveillance systems, and host of other gadgets and geegaws that troops carry around with them while on patrol and in combat situations.
“We have already done millions of these, typically from the U.S. military from bases in the U.S.,” Bruce said.
“They over-bought them for the Iraq war and we’ve been recycling the unused leftovers.”
Now, after Afghanistan, there are more unused batteries to deal with as well as all the used batteries from the conflict.
“Troops use two per day and you factor that over 10 years and there are potentially millions of pounds of these things to deal with,” said Bruce. “Toxco is the only place in the world that recycles lithium batteries.”
Bruce’s presentation in April was before the Dangerous Goods Division of NATO which has representatives from each member country, most of which didn’t know of their options for dealing with spent batteries.
In the past, most of these batteries would have ended up in landfills or been incinerated in open burners but most countries have enacted stricter environmental protection regulations that wouldn’t allow those practices any longer.
The chemical components of the batteries, that previously would have been released to atmosphere or left to corrode in the ground, now can be recycled by Toxco and turned into lithium carbonate for re-use in high strength glass, ceramics, and high temperature lubricants, among other things.
At this point the main barrier to Toxco being able to take on new military contracts is the complication of shipping spent lithium ion batteries globally.
Although the local company has been working internationally for years and has shipped materials from 31 countries, each shipment has to be arranged according to strict regulations for international shipping or disposal of what is considered to potentially be toxic materials.
“It’s not easy to receive these shipments from overseas,” said Bruce. “The Basel Convention dictates shipping standards and that requires that the country that ships the materials and the receiving country have ‘competent authorities’ who can officially sign off on the shipments. In Canada that would be Environment Canada. Because Iraq and Afghanistan are considered developing countries each NATO member has competent authorities there but they’re not fully established at this point.”
It can take from two to three years to obtain a permit to ship these materials for recycling and the permits need to be signed off by the exporting country, the importing country, and any country in between through which the materials might pass.
It is just these complications which lead to Toxco recently receiving a fine from Environment Canada.
“We have to apply for shipping permits in advance and this means making an estimate,” said Bruce. “If we have to modify the amounts of materials in an existing permit it takes time for the application to be processed. That’s basically what happened with this situation, we didn’t get the paperwork in on time and were issued a fine because of what was, essentially, an administrative error.”
Toxco recycled over 3.7 million pounds of lithium batteries last year, about 25 per cent of which were the standard military issue battery packs. The remainder of the material comes from lithium ion batteries from electric cars made by Volkswagen, Nissan, and other manufacturers, and long tubular lithium batteries that are used in directional drills in the petrochemical industry.
Toxco is also a member of a North America wide commercial battery recycling program.
“Consumers can Google the organization’s website, call2recycle, and find battery collection points,” said Bruce. “The batteries are shipped to us from around the province and we sort them by type, recycle any lithium batteries, and package and ship the remainder that we don’t work with to other companies that handle them.”
Although there are currently no new contracts signed to deal with the millions of pounds of military issue lithium batteries Bruce is hopeful for future development.
“We’ve got representatives from the British military coming in early summer to look at our operation,” she said. “And we already have a relationship with the U.S. military that could grow in future.
“Part of the potential for NATO is because Toxco has established international shipping protocols and we know the requirements of the Basel Convention. We’ve even done complete packaging and shipping services for companies around the world where we go to their operation wherever they are in the world and handle the materials from the packaging and applying for the shipping permits, shipping and then receiving the materials here and recycling them.
“I’m proud of what we’re doing towards helping the recycling effort around the world and employing local people, we currently have 30 employees. If we get some of these military contracts we could employ more.”