Article published in Forbes

Redwood Materials, a battery recycling and materials company started by Tesla cofounder JB Straubel, has begun working with the Rotary Club, one of the world’s largest service organizations, on a grassroots-level push to collect used batteries and electronics. The company hopes to extract their valuable metals to make new lithium-ion cells for electric vehicles.

The Reno, Nevada-based company, that’s also preparing to build cathodes and anodes for EV batteries, said it’s expanding a recycling partnership with the organization across the U.S. to collect used batteries, cellphones, laptops, electric tools and other devices at temporary dropoff sites. It builds on an initial program with Rotary that started this year in Silicon Valley. Even in the initial stage, Redwood says it’s already collected tens of thousands of pounds of items to be recycled from clubs in Los Altos, Cupertino and San Jose, California.

Used electronics and their batteries are loaded with much-needed metals, but unlike aluminum cans and glass bottles, only a fraction of the material is currently being recovered and reused. That’s despite the fact that lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and other commodity metals sell for thousands of dollars per ton. Right now, just 17% of all e-waste and less than 5% of lithium-ion batteries are being recycled in the U.S., according to Redwood.

The partnership with the Rotary Club, with 1.4 million members and 46,000 chapters worldwide, builds on U.S. recycling alliances Redwood already operates with Volkswagen and Audi, Toyota, Ford, Volvo Cars, electric truck and bus maker Proterra and bicycle maker Specialized. It’s also got recycling programs with Amazon, Panasonic and ERI, North America’s largest electronics waste consolidator. The company didn’t say how much more material it expects to collect from the Rotary Club partnership.

Demand for materials that go into lithium-ion batteries is spiking and is likely to jump at least 500% in the next few years as all major auto companies plan to boost the production of electric cars and trucks. Recycling can help provide a portion of the needed materials, though adding mining and extraction, such as plans to pull lithium from the volcanic brine beneath California’s Salton Sea, are also necessary to meet the demand.

“We cannot, as a society, recycle our way to such an aggressive demand increase: The truth is we will need to mine many new minerals to create our climate-change-combatting products,” Alexis Georgeson, Redwood’s vice president of government relations, communications and consumer recycling programs, tells Forbes. “However, once deployed, these products will enter a cycle of nearly infinite recyclability.”

Redwood estimates it’s currently receiving at least six gigawatt-hours of used batteries a year, enough to supply more than 80,000 EVs. The company also says consumer devices such as cell phones contain relatively large amounts of cobalt, making them a particularly attractive item to recover.

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Photo: Redwood Materials