Transforming Battery Recycling Through Innovation with Leo Raudys

April 29, 2021

As president and CEO at Call2Recycle, the country’s premier battery stewardship organization and program, Leo Raudys is responsible for the strategic direction and overall performance of Call2Recycle. Under Leo’s leadership, Call2Recycle is focused on leading the transformation of battery recycling through innovative, environmentally-focused end-of-life services and solutions to safely meet the rapidly evolving battery-driven market.

John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy; and is the largest fully integrated IT, and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian. I’m so excited to have my longtime friend with us today, Leo Raudys. Leo, welcome to the Impact podcast.

Leo Raudys: Thanks. Good to see you again, John.

John: Leo, I’ve known you now thirteen-fourteen years. Before we go into what you’re doing today, can you go back and talk a little bit about your history? You’ve been one of the sustainability rock stars of the the United States since I’ve known you. You’ve been a great inspiration to me. I want our listeners and viewers to learn more about you before we get talking about Call2Recycle and what you’re doing right now.

Leo: Yes, thanks. That’s very kind of you. Well, I’ll just take you way back. I mean, I’m an immigrant’s kid from the south side of Chicago. It’s great because you and I have always bonded, and the fact that we both grew up in these big cities in Chicago and New York.

John: Right.

Leo: The way I found myself into this field is just pretty circuitous. I mean, I’ve always been just kind of an explorer, searcher; not really knowing where next step is going to be. Through sheer luck, I ended up in Minnesota, got involved in environmental regulation. I was a regulator for a number of years, then I went to Best Buy where you and I met. I got in pretty deep in sustainability, pretty much kind of in the early days when things were getting going. That was pretty exciting. I’m back in a non-profit, the Call2Recycle; but in between, worked at Microsoft for a few years in our data center, the Cloud business, which is just a ridiculously interesting industry. So, government, private sector, nonprofit; I’ve pretty much seen it all at this point.

John: You really always had a heart and a passion, and were inspirational to me with regards to sustainability and making the world a better place. Not just us using up the resources for our own benefit while we’re here, but actually doing something about the problems that exist. It’s been your heart, it’s been your passion. I’ve been good friends with you for, now, over a decade. For our listeners who want to find Call2Recycle, it’s really easy. It’s www.call, C-A-L-L, 2, the number 2, recycle.org. call2recycle.org. What was its mission statement when it was set up, Leo?

Leo: We’re [inaudible] about twenty five years ago by the battery industry. Essentially, it was because the industry saw this sort of issue looming, which is what’s going to happen to all these batteries that we’re putting into the market. This is a rechargeable battery industry. Back at that time, the concern was about metals getting up in landfills and leaching into the groundwater, et cetera. So basically, a few pretty innovative thinkers got together, and they created us, and we’ve existed to this day. When it started out, we were primarily a compliance-driven organization. I was trying to figure out how to actually responsibly meet regulations, do the right thing, all that; but we’ve grown substantially over that time to the point where… The way I tell people, when I tell my mom… So, this is the way I could explain to her what this new gig was [inaudible]. So, the best way to think about it is if you’re recycling a battery somewhere in the US or Canada, odds are we’re doing it. Because we collected over fifteen thousand sites across the US. That didn’t happen by accident. I mean, there’s a lot of hard work, a lot of the staff at Call2Recycle have been with us for pretty much the entire ride. We started out as a small compliance-based organization. Now, we do voluntary recycling all over the place- rechargeable, also alkaline. I would say the best way to think about it is we’re sort of the logistics back in for doing battery recycling.

John: I love on the website, under the Call2Recycle logo, “Leading the charge for recycling.” I love that.

Leo: Endless ponds in the battery world.

John: Endless ponds in the battery world. Leo, last time we were together in person, we had this lovely dinner in Seattle where you now live. You were at Microsoft. Walk us through a little bit about leaving Microsoft, one of the greatest most iconic brands on the planet, to go take over this great brand Call2Recycle. What was on your mind? What was your thought process on leaving something very comfortable, amazing brand, you can stay probably the rest of your career if that’s what you wanted; and then coming over here, and taking on climbing a new mountain?

Leo: That’s a great question. Microsoft is a tough place to leave. They treat their employees extraordinarily well. On the sustainability side, they’re just really doing amazing things. So, made a lot of great friendships and some of my former teammates is just great long-term colleague. So, it was a great experience. As you know, the data center industry is just booming like mad. So, I learned a ton. I’ve known Call2Recycle going back to when I was a government employee, back when I was just fresh out of grad school. I know the organization pretty well. I’m super, super passionate about the mission. It’s just an opportunity, like this does not come around very often. If you’re lucky, it will happen once in a lifetime. Great organization, great people, great mission. On top of that, I saw this little bit when I was in a cloud industry working at Microsoft, the whole world is just moving to our batteries. So, just think about it. The next is climate change. This is where the action is. It’s often to make a pretty big impact to work with some great people. I mean, that was really impossible to say no to.

John: That’s actually [inaudible]. We got in the business in 2004. I met you over ten years ago. We didn’t talk. When you and I had meetings, it was about electronics, it was about reuse. Batteries wasn’t a big issue back then, fifteen-sixteen years ago, and during your tenure at Best Buy either. But now, for us, and as you said, it’s where all the action is. It’s literally the last mile of electronic recycling and the circular economy. So, you are literally probably in the hottest spot in terms of electronic waste recycling and energy. Every news story seems to be about batteries now and how to appropriately handle them when they come to the end of life. So, I really do think you’re at the cross-section of impact, and circular economy, and ESG behavior. So, that’s exciting to be taken out. Now, you’ve been there sixty days. How has the first sixty days been? Has it gone to plan in your mind when before you actually started on January 1st? Or has it been somewhat different than what you actually thought?

Leo: Well, this is your opportunity to use the famous Mike Tyson quote, but it’s been pretty exhilarating. So, yes, it’s been a couple of months. Again, I knew a number of the people already walking into the job. So, you know, that was a known quantity but I’ve met a lot of people that I hadn’t known before. So, that was great. I’d say it’s a very steep learning curve because it’s just a dramatically changing, rapidly growing industry, new battery chemistries, new players coming in, especially on the processing side. So, it’s been a pretty big learning experience for me but it’s pretty exhilarating. So, I came in with this notion that, you know, we had a certain amount of opportunity in front of us because of what’s happening across the economy in terms of electrification and batteries. Everything I’ve learned is just, you know, the opportunities [inaudible] ten times what I thought it was.

John: Wow! We were talking off air before we started today’s podcast. When I asked you that question, I said, “Yes, it’s like Mike Tyson’s old saying goes, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the head.'” So, I assume the first sixty days was a little bit of a hit the head for you, but for good reason. I mean, it’s a brand new mountain for you to climb as well.

Leo: Yes. I mean, you’re right that just batteries everywhere. Going back to what excited me about this is… Like you talked about, I’ve been in corporate sustainability now since 2009. People have been talking about carbon but there’s been just so much increased emphasis, right? We sell and pretty hardcore goal-setting around net-zero and things like that. Reality is that none of that’s going to happen without batteries. Solar installations, renewable installations, what have you. I mean, batteries are basically the key to cart, you know, to reducing carbon emissions. Back to your question about what I learned the last couple of months, that’s just become super, super clear to me. I mean, people will talk to your partners, et cetera.

John: Well, let’s talk about the frontend, the backend. The frontend, you’re already the leading brand, as you said with fifty thousand or so locations, aggregating batteries on the frontend. The reason why you and I get along so well as friends is, you know, good is never enough. So, now that you’ve come in and you’re leaving this whole brand now with fifty thousand location, what’s great mean? What does the opportunity look like for you in the months and years ahead in terms of more aggregation on the frontend?

Leo: I’d love it for it to be fifty thousand. It’s actually fifteen thousand.

John: Oh, sorry. Okay. That’s a big number still in America. That’s big in the recycling industry.

Leo: That’s thanks to all the retail partnerships we had. For us, it’s going to be about continuing to solidify those partnerships, and keep growing that network, and make sure that consumers actually continue to have places to recycle batteries. It’s like the rates of recycling are still lower than we’d like it to be. It’s not for a lack of opportunity and access. I think there’s still work to be done there. But honestly, things like electric vehicles, electric bikes, scooters, data center, batteries, [inaudible] by all this stuff. All this stuff that traditionally has been sort of an afterthought are hitting the market, pretty, pretty heavy. Three, four, five, six years down the road, we’re going to have to figure out actually what to do with these when they come out of service. I mean, you’ve seen this in the e-waste industry. People were really weren’t thinking about what to do with all these big TV CRTs, et cetera, until it was too late. Next thing you know, you’ve got all this glass that people are concerned about. So, we don’t want that situation. For us, it’s just making sure we continue to keep our eye on the ball, and our existing network, and consumer batteries, keep growing that; but really figure out how we can help the industry figure out the backend, both reuse and recycling these bigger batteries.

John: For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Leo Raudys with us. He’s the president and CEO of Call2Recycle. To find Call2Recycle, Leo, and his colleagues, please go to www.call C-A-L-L, the number 2, recycle.org call2recycle.org. Leo, fifteen thousand locations, more and more batteries are coming. Explain the magnitude of the problem. As you and I both know, e-waste is the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world by an order of magnitude of maybe five times more than number two, but only 18%, 17 and a half to 18% according to the UN numbers of electronic waste around the world is being responsible to be recycled. Is the problem that big with batteries and is there a huge delta for us to try to climb in terms of more battery recycling as well?

Leo: I would actually break it down into a few different pieces. So what I think, think on the processing side, there are pretty good processors out there who actually do the right thing in terms of Environmental Compliance regulation and all that. Where I think there’s a gap is on the carbon side. I talked bout that a few minutes ago. Nobody’s really paid that much attention to what the carbon intensity of battery recycling is. I think that’s an issue. We’ve got to get our arms around as an industry, and a lot of that is around transportation. So, we’ll definitely benefit from electrifying transportation in that part of the supply chain. The way I like to think about it is if you’re trying to reduce the global human carbon footprint, right? So, by doing all these great things that, you know, renewable energy installations, reducing our energy consumption through efficiency, et cetera. So basically, you’re squeezing that balloon of carbon. Unfortunately right now with batteries, there’s a risk that we’re just going to basically squeeze that balloon. It’s just got to pop on another end because we’ve got carbon emissions coming out of our recycling supply chain. So, I think that’s still an opportunity. I don’t worry so much about like creating new Superfund sites or things like that. I think that’s pretty locked down. I think we’ve got some work to do on the carbon side. Aside from that, I’d say, you know, it’s making sure that people have awareness of what to do with these things so that they’re not actually causing problems at places like waste-handling facilities because with these lithium ion batteries, if they’re not handled properly, they’re are fire risk. So, it’s been actually a pretty big emphasis for us for the last couple of years to try to educate people on how to properly recycle these batteries. Because if you don’t do it right, you know, if they come in at contact with each other, that’s an issue. I would say the last piece is- and I’m sure you used to do this as well is all the embedded batteries. It’s hard to find a piece of electronic equipment these days that doesn’t have a battery in it. If you’re an e-waste recycler and you try to figure out how to responsibly meant, you know, it’s like you got to worry about the batteries inside and ways that you didn’t have to in the past. That’s pretty big challenge.

John: Let’s go back to the carbon issue because you’re much more experienced and versed in that than I am. Section 933 of the New Climate Bill introduced by the Congress included carbon credits for the safe disposal and recycling of batteries and other forms of electronic waste. Is this going to be a new era that we’re walking into? Is carbon credits going to be available for the responsible recycling of batteries now?

Leo: Potentially, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that bill, but I would say this is going to be a variety of market signals coming in the play that’s going to push the industry toward less carbon intensive solutions. Because right now, everybody’s competing just purely on price, and that price does not include the embedded cost of carbon. Let’s say you’re a data center company and you want to get rid of your batteries. You got a room full of batteries. You try to figure out what to do with them, right? Lithium ion batteries. You’re going to go for ease of use, right? You’re going to find a provider that’s going to make it easy for you, and possibly take it off your hands for free. But if they charge you something, you’re going to go on price, right? But that price doesn’t include carbon. Maybe that cost is going to get affected by carbon credits entering the market. So if somebody is able to compete in that space, they’ll be able to be more competitive on price. Maybe they’ll actually be an actual price on carbon. So if you’re able to transport those batteries more efficiently from a carbon perspective, you’re more cost competitive when you take into account carbon. That’ll give you an advantage in the markets. I think there’s going to be a variety of things. I don’t own a crystal ball to tell you which one’s actually going to have the most impact. I did see that bill. I thought it was pretty interesting. It’s a good step in the right direction. It’s here, we got to deal with it.

John: Right. With regards to the new administration, how much does that help your efforts as the new leader of Call2Recycle to achieve the goals that you’re going to be setting out in the first couple of quarters of this year?

Leo: That’s hard to say. As a non-profit, we were pretty focused on our mission in collecting battery. So, we really don’t get involved in like advocated for this or that policy aside from just being able to provide technical expertise, but we do keep a pretty close eye on what’s happening. So, having spent many years in government, seen many administration’s come and go, I’d say over the first six to twelve months, it’s a period of a lot of change and a lot of momentum. We’re starting to see that. I’d see the encouraging signs. It seems like there’s a focus on investment in renewable technologies, emphasis on advanced battery technology. So that kind of thing, I think, is going to feed more and more momentum toward figuring out the cleanest battery technology solution. So, I think it’s all good, you know, the proof’s in the pudding. I think it’s pretty optimistic.

John: For our listeners and our viewers out there, Leo, give some shameless promotion to people who want to do the right thing with their small gadgets or batteries. Where can they drop these off? Who are your retail partners? So, people just don’t throw this stuff in the trash anymore. So, they responsibly recycle it using your Call2Recycle network.

Leo: Home Depot, Lowe’s Staples. You can basically, I would say, you know, municipalities. What I would suggest anybody to do is go to our website which you graciously given the people the address here. You could pretty easily figure out what the closest recycling center is for you. We’ve got great partnerships with retailers who just take this pretty seriously. You can make sure that they actually get back to where they need to go to be responsibly recycled and safe. So, the best thing to do is just go to the website and check it out.

John: That’s great. Fifteen thousand locations is great. We’ve talked about the frontend a little bit. In twenty five years, as you and I know in sustainability, many things change. Talk a little bit about the backend. When you bring in all these batteries, has the backend side of who gets your batteries and how they recycle responsibly in the beneficial reuse of the materials inside of them change dramatically? How hopeful were you about that part of the equation as well?

Leo: I’d say the processes are getting more efficient. I think a lot of it has been driven by cost, but also, you know, frankly corporate partners and governments are really pushing toward more circular solutions. I think we’ve still got a long way to go in terms of truly getting to a certain sort of a circular economy for batteries. I don’t know that anybody’s figured that out quite yet. They’re definitely some interesting players out there that I think are going to be… We’re going to look back a couple years now and say there were innovators that really pushed it. My view of it is over the last five-ten years, I’ve seen incremental improvements with existing technologies. Nothing really quite like certain new… like that next big thing, like the the change from the horse-drawn carriage to an automobile. I haven’t seen that kind of thing, but I feel like it’s coming. I think it’s going to have to because the scale. Again, going back to these big batteries, within just the next four to five years, there’s going to be about ten times the number lithium ion batteries being installed at renewable green solutions. It’s already quite huge. To be able to actually handle those on the backend, we’re going to have to have solutions at scale. I think we’re all going to have to change it; figure out how to do sorting differently, go to more automated sorting, less reliance on just pure manual labor which is the way it’s been done for a long time. It’s to just really figure out how to keep up with the pace of what’s coming at us.

John: Leo, we were having a nice conversation before the podcast. I said to you, you’ve been a constant form of inspiration for me. You’ve always wanted to make the world a better place in your public servant work in the State of Minnesota, in your leadership work at Best Buy, in the electronic waste sector there, and at Microsoft. Now, you have this unique position as the CEO and president of Call2Recycle. Just from an ESG circular economy sustainability point of view, I feel like we were early ten-twelve-fifteen years ago in our career work and what we were doing day-to-day, but I feel like the world is caught up with us. It’s easy to get discouraged and become sort of, you know, change career paths or something. When the whole world is not lined up, you feel like almost the world’s working against you. Do you feel the same way that all the stars are sort of lining up now on ESG and circular economy, both from a business and nonprofit governmental political site, and that really it’s a great time to make the world a better place from a sustainability point of view and circular economy point of view?

Leo: It’s dramatically different. Back when I was working at a publicly traded company, I would ask our investor relations department like, “Okay, how many times you getting [inaudible] investor calls,” you know, about environmental issues, social issues. As much as all of us in sustainability wanted to believe that it was on investors’ minds, in reality, it just wasn’t. It never came up on quarterly [inaudible] calls. It never came up on the private investors calls. When I talk to those same folks today, because I still know folks on the network that work in the space, it’s dramatically different. Especially in the last twelve to eighteen months, I don’t know what the data are, but the percentage of times that you actually have somebody who raise any issue in an earnings call has gone up considerably for sure as part of the conversation. So, you know, it’s you follow money, and it’s dramatically different. When I was at Microsoft, I saw that the level of commitment and just the true engagement on these issues and really putting, you know, their money where their mouth is, that’s happening all across the private sector. Big, big difference.

John: Leo, because of your unique career path- nonprofit now, leadership of nonprofit, publicly traded companies, government leader, public servants you worked, what can you share with the new generation of young people that want to make the world a better place, that want to be the next Leo Raudys, what can you share with them in terms of how to get involved, what to do. Do they start their own company and try to go into the recycling or sustainability world on their own? Do they join a bigger firm? What kind of advice do you share now with the retrospective that you have with so much experience you have underneath your belt already?

Leo: Actually, I’ve had many conversations like this. [inaudible] to teach the University of Minnesota for a few years. A lot of students are asking the same thing. “Where do I start?” My advice apply sustainability to any kind of field which is, you know, build your network out. Get to know people, reach out, don’t be afraid of being told no. If you ask for twenty informational interviews, you get one yes, that’s a success, right? And just to really build those networks. One, you’re going to learn things that you don’t necessarily know before. You’re going to find out about opportunities. The things that you think you want to do may turn out to be the things that actually turn your crank in where you want to go. So, that’s the first piece of advice. As it relates to sustainability, I still think the absolute best way for somebody to get connected and to understand the field as a student, as a young person is net impact. So, get involved in a local chapter, go to meetings if you can, once we can be meeting again because that’s where you’re going to find people basically on the same situation. You’ll meat professional acquaintances. You’ll find those opportunities. The other thing I would say is just be pretty fearless in terms of pursuing the opportunities you think are the right ones. Don’t necessarily listen to what people are telling you what the right or wrong things. You should trust your gut. More often than not, you’re going to be right. And if you’re wrong, you’ll learn something in the process, right?

John: Right. For our listeners and viewers, to find Leo in all the locations, you can recycle your old batteries and small gadgets, go to call2recycleorg. Call, number 2, 2, recycled.org. Leo, last thoughts. When I interview you again a year from now on Impact, where do you think we’re going to be in terms of your journey at Call2Recycle? Where do you want to be?

Leo: That’s a real good question. I’m two months in. I don’t know the answer to that yet. I do know that the scale on the pace of change is unlike anything any of us have seen before. The way I best describe it is is to think about what the world looked like before the industrial revolution and after it. That’s pretty much what we’re going through right now but in a very, very much faster pace. The industrial revolution took about a hundred years. [inaudible] ten-twenty years where we’re basically going to have a completely electrified economy with cleaner energy sources. That’s happening right now. I think in the next year or two, it’s going to look very different from what it looks like today. Part of that’s going to be investment from the federal government because the change of administration. I don’t know the answer to that. If you were to ask me in three to four years, I would hope and expect- I’d be disappointed if we didn’t actually figure out how to have a cleaner reverse logistics supply chain for batteries. I think that’s we really need to do that because again, batteries are a key to solving climate change. We better make sure that this part of the supply chain actually is clean as it possibly can be. So, give me three-four years, I think it’ll look different. We’ll see.

John: No problem. Well, you’re always welcome back on the Impact podcast to share your journey at Call2Recycle. Again, for our listeners, to find Leo and his colleagues, and Call2Recycle, go to www.call, 2, number 2, recycle.org. Leo, every organization you’ve touched, and I’ve seen you at over the last ten plus years, you’ve made better, you’ve always made the world a better place. You’ve been a great inspiration to me. I want to thank you again for being on the Impact podcast today.

Leo: Thanks, John. Happy to be here.

John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Trajectory. Energy Partners. Trajectory Energy Partners brings together landowners, electricity users, and communities to develop solar energy projects with strong local support. For more information on how Trajectory is leading the solar revolution, please visit trajectoryenergy.com.