The startup estimates that wide-scale adoption of long-life, rechargeable batteries could save 126,350 metric tons of batteries from filling US landfills each year, with an immeasurable reduction in chemical leakage. But the industry has been slow to innovate to address its environmental impacts.
Although portable electronic devices have transformed just about every aspect of our lives, they’ve left a lengthy stream of waste in their wake. Each year, US consumers buy up to 5.4 billion batteries each year to keep their precious devices running, with the average person burning through eight single-use batteries per year.
Whether that’s due to battery industry marketing or a lack of circular design thinking from manufacturers, batteries are a huge problem — as they often end up in landfills, where they leak harmful chemicals into the earth (not to mention the ongoing emissions output from production and transportation of these products).
“If we do the math into the future, the faster we can change, the better,” Paleblue founder Tom Bishop told Sustainable Brands™.
Bishop’s Utah-based startup produces a first-of-its-kind, USB-rechargeable battery that comes in a range of the most common sizes and four individual charging connectors per cord. While the cost of admission is relatively high (as much as $30 for a two-pack) he notes that the cost balances out after 5-6 uses — especially considering Paleblue’s batteries meet the industry standard 1,000-charge lifecycle before they begin to lose any charge (they’ll retain up to 80 percent of their charge for some time longer after that).
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“I had the earliest batteries, and I’m still using them — and the vast majority of what we’ve sold is still very early in its lifestyle,” he says, noting the company only started in earnest in 2019.
Building market share outside of the US
Bishop says that he’s had the most success to date outside of the US — in places such as Switzerland, France, Japan and the Nordic countries — “where they’re a few steps ahead of us in terms of more sustainable products and business.”
He says he has a team in Europe helping to get batteries into the hands of savvy consumers there while working to scale where it makes sense to do so. He’s also hoping to get ahead of a global population shift into the middle class where more mobility may mean more need for reusable batteries.
“People are using batteries in plenty of ways we can’t imagine,” he adds.
He also thinks that starting kids young with the ability to use rechargeable batteries will help create a foundation of using them for life, rather than reaching for single-use. He envisions a future where everything from computer mouses to outdoor gear could be powered by flexible, rechargeable batteries.
“If we can harness everything we’re doing to support (industry growth), we can set the bar for every other business. We believe that customers will encourage other businesses to enter into the (rechargeable) space,” he says.
‘Still a small drop in a large bucket’
Bishop concedes that Paleblue is still a ways away from competing on a larger scale with the major players in the battery space, and has much work to do to become a closed-loop product.
“We can’t really reintegrate our materials yet,” he says.
The key is access to lithium (to power the company’s lithium-ion batteries) and Bishop is monitoring potential big lithium mines in Nevada. But because scalable mining in the US is not a done deal, he estimates a viable domestic supply chain is still years away.
A longer-term goal would be to produce the batteries closer to individual sources of lithium, but that requires integrated development of lithium sources around the world — which, as the Nevada mine example shows, is still very much a work in progress.
Battery recycling still in its infancy
In a white paper Paleblue published in December, the company outlined the dangers of battery waste: leaking chemicals into landfills (and subsequent leakage into waterways), long-term exposure to some of these chemicals and the physical bulk of the batteries, just to name a few.
The summary is that at least in the US, states have been largely tasked with trying to manage battery waste on their own, even after a 1996 Congressional bill mandated that batteries become less toxic. And while intrepid startups such as Aceleron have innovated to ensure we’re getting every last drop of energy from our lithium-ion batteries, the industry at large has yet to follow suit.
More than 25 years since that Congressional mandate, the world is still dealing with millions of pounds of annual battery waste; and the problem doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Paleblue estimates that wide-scale adoption of rechargeable batteries could save 126,350 metric tons of batteries from filling US landfills each year, with an immeasurable reduction in chemical leakage.
Bishop sees potential industry transformation on the horizon, but the speed and scale remain unclear.