Canada: Should Roadbed Slag Count As Battery Recycling?

Last Updated: February 4 2014
Article by Dianne Saxe

Waste Diversion Ontario is considering a proposal by Call2Recycle Canada to take over battery recycling from Ontario's existing Consolidated Municipal Hazardous Solid Waste (CMHSW) diversion program under the Waste Diversion Act, 2002. Ontario's battery recyclers (including our client) have many good reasons to be strongly opposed.

Among other things, the proposal would allow Call2Recycle to undercut Ontario's existing green battery recyclers. Instead of up-cycling single use batteries, and making productive use of the components, as under the existing CMHSW program, Call2Recycle uses a cheaper shortcut: melting single use batteries into nickel mill slag, and which is put in roadbeds as "aggregate".

The proposal would also allow Call2Recycle to divert lead acid batteries, which existing market players already recycle at 98.7%, away from a green Ontario business to a competitor in Quebec. This could transfer market share, profits, and perhaps jobs, from high-performing Ontario green businesses to Call2Recycle and its preferred partners, without improving lead acid battery recycling or environmental performance.

Recycling Effectiveness and up-cycling: the current program

Melting single use batteries into slag and burying the slag in road beds is, unsurprisingly, less expensive than carefully separating and up-cycling each of the hazardous components, as is now done under Ontario's CMHSW program (Orange Drop) program. The Ontario Minister of Environment approved the Orange Drop program plan on September 22, 2009. The plan included a battery collection target and a Recycling Effectiveness Requirement (RER) that, to date, has only been met by one Ontario processor, RMC.

Based on the approved RER in the CMHSW program plan, Stewardship Ontario developed a Battery Recycling Effectiveness Rate Measurement Protocol. The Protocol distinguishes between:

  1. Up-cycling: The practice of recycling a material in such a way that it retains its original high-quality in a closed-loop industrial cycle. This requires that materials can be fully separated and recovered at a product's end of life.2 The closed-loop industrial cycle involves reusing those materials in high-value applications in order to displace the use of equivalent virgin materials in a like or other application (i.e., recovered Manganese used to produce new batteries or other manufactured products, recovered steel used in the manufacture new steel, etc.), and
  2. Down-cycling: The practice of recycling a material in such a way that much of its inherent value is lost and cannot be recovered following its next use3 (for example, use of battery derived smelter slag in construction and/or aggregate for concrete).

The Protocol defines "Recycling Effectiveness" (RE) as "The ratio of battery material up-cycled to the total input of batteries on a dry weight basis". It set a minimum RE necessary for a processor to be eligible for a battery Processing Incentive, the Recycling Effectiveness Threshold (RET), at 80%.

Stewardship Ontario's audit of INMETCO is available here: Inmetco Audit Final Report 1 of 2 files Inmetco Audit Final Report 2 of 2 files. The audit concluded that Call2Recycle's process does not meet the 80% RET, because converting batteries to slag is down-cycling, not up-cycling.

Turning batteries into roadbed slag

Call2Recycle mixes single use batteries in with nickel-cadmium batteries, and sends the resulting mixture to a nickel refinery in the United States. The refinery can recover metals such as nickel and cadmium, but other components are left in its slag. The slag, in turn, is "primarily" sold or disposed of as "aggregate" for use in road beds. Call2Recycle claims that this qualifies as "recycling"; otherwise, it cannot match the minimum 80% Recycling Efficiency Rate of the current Orange Drop program.

Call2Recycle collects batteries in some other provinces. It has a long-standing arrangement to ship its single–use batteries to INMETCO – an American smelter. INMETCO can recover metals such as nickel and cadmium, and therefore does a good job with nickel cadmium batteries. However, most single use batteries do not contain material amounts of such metals. Evidence that INMETCO converts single use batteries to slag is found in the waste management audit described above, and in securities documents filed by INMETCO's parent company, Horsehead Holding Corp.'s UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION FORM 10-K filing: For example:

Page 12 Environmental Services

Under the environmental service fee arrangement, INMETCO acquires waste materials and processes those materials with no obligation to return any product to the customer. Depending on the state of the metals markets, INMETCO either charges a fee or pays to acquire environmental services materials. These materials include batteries and specialty steel industry wastes. Batteries include Ni-Cd, nickel-metal hydride, sodium-nickel-chloride and various other nickel-based batteries. INMETCO also processes limited quantities of household alkaline, zinc-carbon and lithium batteries. Additionally, lithium-ion and lead-acid batteries are sent to third-party recyclers for processing. Specialty steel industry wastes include flue dust, mill scale, grinding swarf and pickling filter cake along with a wide variety of other nickel-bearing wastes. Revenues are derived from these materials through the sale of remelt alloy product and cadmium product, as well as scrap sales and brokerage activities.

Here, "processes" means puts through its smelter, where all materials, other than recoverable metals, are converted to slag. The filing continues, on page 13:

Slag discharged from the EAF [electric arc furnace] is processed and sold primarily as road aggregate.

"Road aggregate" means the slag is applied to, i.e. used in, roads, which sound like "land" to me. This matters because section 25(2) of the Waste Diversion Act   prohibits waste diversion programs that promote land application.

As the 2012 CM report on waste batteries noted:

Inclusion of slag as recycling may lead to discrimination of existing battery recyclers in collection programs where presently slag is not authorized to be used for road construction, instead of better recovery methods. This may lead to economic and job losses in Canada.

Another related issue is controlling undesired contamination when slag is used in particular applications (i.e., meeting the limit values for heavy metals when slag is used as road construction material). This is also an important factor affecting both whether to include theslag in the RER, and, if it is included, how to monitor which slag meets the minimum levels of toxicity.

If Ontario allows melting hazardous batteries into slag and burying it in road beds to qualify as "recycling", why should other industries take up-cycling seriously? And why isn't Ontario protecting jobs in Ontario green businesses?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Dianne Saxe
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