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Teck and battery recycling leaders make Trail an ideal hub

Opinion: Richard Cannings is MP for the South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding
MP Richard Cannings

by Richard Cannings

Most people in the southern interior of B.C. know there’s a big smelter in Trail — one of the biggest in the world — but fewer are aware of the metal-based network of other companies in Trail that add to the economic impact of the smelter.

Two of those companies have battery recycling operations that are among the biggest on the continent, making Trail one of the most important recycling hubs in North America.

Metal Tech Alley is a business accelerator in Trail dedicated to supporting companies that build the circular economy in the West Kootenay.

A couple of weeks ago they toured me through the three facilities mentioned above — the Teck smelter, KC Recycling’s lead-acid battery recycling plant and Cirba Solutions (Retriev) recycling operation that deals with all other types of batteries.

The smelter is impressive — a vast industrial complex employing hundreds of people, bringing ore in from all over the world and producing huge amounts of zinc, lead, silver, and other metals.

It has been a mainstay of the Kootenay economy for more than a century, taking advantage of the local supply of clean hydro power to keep going long after the local mines ran out.

The real eye-opener for me, though, were the two recycling plants I visited.

KC Recycling is the largest lead battery recycler in the Pacific Northwest.

I didn’t realize how recyclable ordinary car batteries are, but when you buy a new one, your old battery is packed up and sent to a recycling facility.

And chances are if you live somewhere in B.C. that battery will end up at KC Recycling.

All of the lead that makes up the bulk of the battery and the lead sulphate from the spent cells are separated and sent to the Teck refinery for processing back to pure lead, which is then shipped back to battery manufacturers.

The same goes for the plastic battery cases, which is turned into plastic pellets and shipped to the same manufacturers.

Lead-acid batteries are considered hazardous waste within Canada and are shipped under strict reporting protocols that track each battery.

Some of the batteries that don’t go to KC Recycling end up being exported to Asia as automotive scrap, however, and can end up in recycling facilities that lack any amount of environmental protection.

It’s time we kept our hazardous waste at home in Canada to make sure it is recycled safely as it is done in Trail.

The story at Cirba Solutions is another remarkable tale of success. Formerly known as Retriev Technologies, Cirba is one of the leading battery recyclers in North America, specializing in lithium batteries that have become so prevalent and critical to the success of modern technical devices and electric vehicles.

Like the story of where your car batteries go — if you’ve ever dropped smaller batteries off at your recycling centre for disposal, they end up in Trail at Cirba Solutions.

If you’ve ever been told that new batteries can’t be recycled, don’t believe it as Cirba can recycle any battery out there, producing lithium salts, cobalt cake and other valuable products for re-use.

Cirba also handles large lithium-primary batteries from industrial and military applications.

These require extra care as the pure lithium is highly reactive.

The Trail facility is the only one in North America that can deal with these batteries.

The lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles are fully recyclable as well but present a bit of a challenge to recyclers as they are large, difficult to open up, and every car model has a different shaped battery to fit with the vehicle design.

The volume of these batteries coming in for recycling is expected to rise as more electric vehicles hit the road, but there will be a 10-year or more delay as the life span of these batteries seems to be longer than previously estimated.

The combination of the big Teck smelter and continental leaders in battery recycling technology makes Trail an ideal site for further growth as a battery hub for Canadian industry and I’ve begun conversations with the federal government about the investments needed to accomplish just that.

It would be yet another good news story that combines a circular economy of recycling with the high tech materials the world needs.

Richard Cannings is MP for the South Okanagan-West Kootenay riding.