Exploring End-of-Life Battery Solutions with Jim Keefe of Recycling Today

May 29, 2024

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Jim Keefe, EVP & Group Publisher of the Recycling Today Media Group, originally joined GIE Media, Recycling Today’s parent company, in 1991 in a sales and market research capacity. In 1992 he was promoted to Marketing Manager for GIE’s recycling business and in 1993 promoted to Sales and Marketing Manager for GIE’s portfolio of media products.

In 1995 his focus returned to the recycling industry when he was promoted to Publisher of Recycling Today and its affiliate publications. Since that time, Keefe has remained active in the recycling, waste and environmental services industry, meeting with industry leaders, participating in industry conferences and meetings in North America and globally. He has visited recycling, scrap processing and waste management facilities as well as consumers of recycled commodities across the globe.

John Shegerian: Get the latest Impact podcast right into your inbox each week. Subscribe by entering your email address at impactpodcast.com to make sure you never miss an interview. 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 For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This episode of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps, and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.

John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited and honored to have with us today my long-time good friend, Jim Keefe. He’s the EVP and group publisher of the Recycling Media Today media group. Welcome, Jim, to the Impact podcast. Welcome back, I should say.

Jim Keefe: Well, John, it’s great to be with you again. Thanks so much for the opportunity and for visiting with us here at Recycling Today. We appreciate it very much.

John: You know, it’s not only a pleasure, but it’s an honor, and you’ve been such a good friend over the last 20 or so years. Recycling has become one of the most exciting industries now that the whole world is shifting from a linear to a circular economy. That’s saying, how is it going to do that? Well, recycling is one of the main, basically, killers of how we’re going to get from the linear to circular economy. So, you’re like literally at the center of Maine and Maine, of the new economy that we’re going into right now.

Jim: That’s true. You know, the truth is that recycling is often misunderstood, as a good industry, but it is a cornerstone to creating a sustainable circular economy conserving resources, and maximizing the value of resources. And, you know, sometimes recycling gets a bad rap. I think a lot of times in the consumer media, you have journalists who want to make headlines and they find one thing that doesn’t work quite right about a recycling program, and they take the industry. The truth is, that there are millions of tons globally of recycled materials captured, reprocessed, and introduced back into the economy every year. And so, it offers tremendous energy savings and resource savings, as well as carbon reduction across the economy that people, I think, often don’t think about. You know, recyclers are the original environmentalists.

John: And true. And like you said, back in the day, 20, 30 years ago, even maybe even more recently, it got sort of this sort of crunchy granola tree hugger type of reputation. It’s it’s the opposite. There’s such there’s such value to be gotten out of recycling when done correctly. Just like sustainability, sustainability. People used to think, oh, with the C-Suite used to think sustainability is going to cost me more. If done right. Sustainability for any organization means resiliency potentially more, potentially more capital to the organization, and more efficiencies. But again, it just comes from education. And sometimes it’s a long it’s a tall amount to climb. But the fun part is you’ve now an overnight success over the last 30 years, and you’re right in the most exciting industry.

Jim: Yes, it’s amazing. You know, I’m almost 35 years in the industry and, you know, the recycled materials industry is foundational, and a lot of people don’t think about this. But the truth is that whether it’s a school, a hospital, whether it’s the can that you like to drink your favorite water or soda out of, whether it’s virtually anything you can think of, the bridges that you drive over, the electronics that you use each day are all made possible. Because of the materials that are returned to the supply chain through the recycled materials industry, it’s a pivotal part of the economy.

John: You know, I couldn’t agree with you more. You know, Jim, you are an iconic legend in the recycling industry. And I want to just give a little history. You know how you know, you’ve been in it, like you just said, 35 or so years. How did you get on this fascinating journey? You know, where were you born and who inspired you to even, like, get into this industry way before it was cool and hip and an industry that, you know, is now the forefront of the new economy?

Jim: Well, you know, John, I’m a northern Ohio native. I was born in East Cleveland, Ohio, and I’ve lived here in the northern Ohio region for my whole life, proud Ohioan, love this part of the country. And I joined the industry back in 1991. And I came in working on Recycling Today magazine for a parent company, G.I.E. Media. And what happens is if you’re around the recycling industry for any period, people always say it gets in your blood. And when you see the good that’s done, when you see the innovation that the industry represents, when you see the fact that it is a truly global industry, the recycled materials industry is a raw materials market that provides critical manufacturing feedstock for literally anything and everything that encompasses our daily lives and you begin to get a sense that this is an industry you can make a difference in, you make a difference.

There’s a great old expression that I often think about that we don’t inherit the world from our parents. We borrow it from our children. And so, the thought is, you know, what are we doing in our lives as professionals, but as businesspeople to protect that right to make that possible? And I don’t think there are a lot of industries that contribute to protecting our world in the way that the recycled materials industry does. And one of the amazing elements there to think about is that so many products in our world, the things that we think of in our modern life, whether it’s, you know, the cell phones that we all rely upon or whether it’s our computers that are letting this conversation happen. Many of those materials are not designed with end-of-life in mind.

And so, the recycled materials industry is the one who’s got to capture that material at the end of its life and of its useful life and then deal with all of those constituent materials. And find out the best way to process and remanufacture a specification raw material for basic industries. And that’s a complicated business. It’s very challenging. You know what you’ve done at ERI, John, you’ve been an absolute pioneer in figuring out how to take end-of-all-life electronics and create raw materials that are going to drive our modern society. And I think that the industry doesn’t get the credit that it deserves, quite honestly, because the design for recycling components isn’t done very well for by basic industry.

And if one thing, you know, and I know we’re going to get to a couple of topics here, but, you know, that’s one message that you just want to share with people as CEOs, as business leaders, think about what does sustainability mean? Part of that journey has to be thinking about how you design for the end of life. What happens at the end of life? And the pivotal thing there as well is partnerships. You’ve got to be open to partnerships and coordination across the supply chain to allow for reverse logistics and things of this nature to work again. I don’t want to get in the weeds can be complicated like any business. But the thing that I want to emphasize is the fact that we need more design for recycling. We need manufacturers to think about the end of life for the products that they produce.

John: And that’s a brilliant point because I know you’re spot on the first 15 years of our existence at ERI, you know, we dealt with 75 to 80 OEMs or clients. We never had tours by their engineers. Now they have whole sections. They have actual divisions called exactly what you just said, designed for sustainability, and at least now once a month, one OEM at least a month comes through one of our facilities with their engineers, they’re designed for sustainability engineers and executives. They want to know what happens at the end of life and how we now design our products better to be better recycled and to recover more materials. Exactly what you say is happening, and that trend is accelerating. And that’s what feels right and feels good.

Jim: It’s a wonderful beginning. And we’re seeing more and more of that across the economy. And I think it’s so very important that you look at things like not calling out companies, but like the way a company like Amazon has changed the entire supply chain, right, and we all love the convenience of just ordering it. It comes to our doorstep. But that means something in terms of packaging. And how do you get that packaging back into the manufacturing process?

John: So true. That’s so true. You know, starting with recycling today, recycling today is the true news leader for the recycling industry. It’s the first magazine and publication I ever referred to 20 years ago when I got into the industry 20 over 20 years ago, still, it’s my go-to publication. What is the exact mission of recycling today? And how has it evolved during your leadership as group publisher of Recycling Today Media Group?

Jim: So, Recycling Today has deep roots in the industry. It goes back to 1963 when it was originally founded as Secondary Raw Materials Magazine, which is kind of, you know, sexy name, right? But it does grab the idea that what we’re trying to drive through to people today is that we are a recycled materials industry that captures, remanufactures, and specification raw materials to go back into the supply chain. And the mission of Recycling Today is really to be the business magazine for recycling professionals. We cover news, we cover legislation, regulation, technology, and commodity markets, all of the things that help to drive the industry.

If I think about how that has evolved and changed over the years, one of the certainly one of the biggest things was the development of the Internet. You know, we used to cover news in the magazine itself, in the print magazine. That was the only way. Right. Now we don’t cover news in the magazine because we produce newsletters twice a week that go out to the industry and we have over one hundred thousand unique visitors coming to recyclingtoday.com every month to get business intelligence news, market news, and business insights in the print magazine. We focus on business intelligence, analysis of the industry, where it’s going, and what’s driving it.

How’s it going to change? Where’s it going to evolve? And what does that mean when we think about things like how you move towards green steel, and decarbonizing the steel industry? Right. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires the recycled materials supply chain to make that happen. If you look at things like aluminum, recycled aluminum consumes 90 percent less energy. That producing aluminum from virgin materials and what hospital could you ever go to in your life that doesn’t rely upon aluminum for parts of that environment? Stainless steel in that environment. Right. All are dependent upon the recycled materials supply chain. And so, recycling today tries to focus on what business executives, owners, and managers need to know to manage their businesses effectively in a rapidly changing world. And that’s our mission. That’s what we focus on here at Recycling Today.

John: What are some of the bigger trends now that you’re excited about with regards to the recycling industry as we now head into this big shift, legacy shift, the generational shift from the circular, from basically the linear to circular economy?

Jim: You know, it’s a very exciting time in the business because there is this acknowledgment on a global scale that we need to move away from a linear economy to a circular economy and more and more businesses are realizing they have a role to play in that process. I mentioned a couple of these things. We’re seeing this massive movement towards green steel. You know, listen, steel is a base material. It is everything in our modern life relies on steel. You can’t have a bridge over a river.

How do we traverse the Mississippi River? Right. We just drove over a bridge today. That bridge is built on steel, right? Skyscrapers, schools, automobiles, and EVs all rely upon steel. Greening that industry is critical. And the recycled materials industry plays a role in that. You look at the packaging. I mentioned, you know, our nice ability to just order something online and everyone shows up at my doorstep the next morning. Right. And that relies on packaging. The packaging industry is an industry that is largely based on recycled commodities. You see the. Cardboard boxes that enter back into the recycling stream and go turnkey.

We need more people at home. To make sure that cardboard is getting back to the recycling channel. Don’t put it in the waste bin, put it in the recycling bin. Right. To me, that’s a very exciting time. The other thing that we’re seeing that to me is very, very exciting in the recycling industry is the evolution of technology. Technology plays such an important role in what is possible today. And I was looking just the other day. I was I mentioned I was in Las Vegas. I had a big industry convention, and I was looking at an A.I. platform that allows processors of material to analyze not only the efficiency of their plants in terms of capturing everything that can be reclaimed but also ensuring its purity so that it’s as clean and pure as it can be.

So, when it goes back into the manufacturing process, it’s a true and necessary raw material, but it can also help brand owners because it can go all the way down and identify packaging to an SKU number. So, you can tell that this is from this manufacturer, this product, and it was distributed in this part of the country. So that kind of visibility into the recovery channel, I think, holds the potential to revolutionize the continued evolution of the industry.

John: You use a great word, transparency. It seems as though for everyone I speak with chief impact officers, ESG officers, and chief sustainability officers, the word transparency is now being coupled with radical transparency as one of the major pillars of good recycling habits, good circular economy behavior, and things that surround those topics is that’s something you agree with? I take it.

Jim: I agree with it wholeheartedly. And I will go a step further John. It goes back to a further point of it begins to open the door to accountability, you know, as a consumer. I have a choice to make in the products that I choose and if manufacturers are increasingly not aware of their obligation to design for recycling design at the end for end of life, what is going to happen to that material? Whether it’s your automobile or it’s your box that comes in or your tennis shoes or whatever it is, we all play a role. That visibility into the system, into the recovery, into the supply chain that is increasingly available today also will provide mechanisms through which we as consumers will be able to hold the companies, we buy things from accountable.

John: Makes sense. For our listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us today, we’ve got Jim Keefe with us. He’s the EVP and group publisher of Recycling Today Media Group. To find Jim, you can go to www.recyclingtoday.com. You know, Jim, I was last year, had the honor of being at your inaugural Battery and Critical Metals Recycling Conference that Recycling Today and your media group put on. It was a terrific event. It was packed. I know you’re having the event again this year in June in Atlanta. Talk a little bit about why you came up with holding this event last year, why you’re doing it again this year, and why that topic.

Jim: Well, the reason we developed this event, John, is because batteries are proliferating in our society. I mean, if you think about it, those of us who travel or just go to the office or go to the gym in the morning, you know, you wouldn’t think about this. But if you’re on your way to the gym in the morning, how many batteries are riding with you? You know, you’ve got probably ear pods because you’re listening to a podcast or some great music. You’ve got your cell phone with you. So right there, you’ve got three batteries riding along with you. They are everywhere. And the thing about batteries is twofold.

On one hand, batteries are manufactured from critical raw materials. These are strategic materials, and they’re also expensive hard to mine, and hard to refine. And so, when we produce them already, we must capture the value from those materials at the end of that battery’s useful life to go back into new batteries, right? We don’t want to mine more material than we need to. And so, to make that work, we’ve got to reclaim batteries at the end of their life. And think about it, John, there are micro batteries. There are batteries, small batteries, medium-sized batteries. And then we go all the way up to things like EV batteries.

And we’re talking about, you know, now transportation through the form of trucking. So, you’re looking at trucks with batteries, electric trucks. That’s a big battery. We need to make sure we capture all of those materials at the end of their useful life. But the other thing is safety. Listen, I commented earlier, we don’t inherit the earth from our parents. We borrow it from our children. We do not want the materials that are in batteries to end up in landfills and to end up creating, frankly, a toxic problem for our society, right? But also, what a lot of people don’t realize is that batteries are dangerous. They’re very dangerous.

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And we have a lot of essential workers who work in the, whether it’s the refuse collection, the environment. We have a lot of essential workers who work in the environmental services industry who are on the street every day. We don’t think about this as consumers. We put the garbage at the end of our driveway, and we think it just goes away. But guess what? Somebody’s doing that work. Batteries that are not properly handled and end up in the garbage stream are very dangerous. They start fires. And you see facilities, you see trucks. I want every worker to go home at the end of their day. I do not want that. I don’t want that worker to be in a garbage truck that catches fire because there’s a battery in the back of that truck that gets crushed in the process. It breaks and it ignites.

That’s the thing about batteries. If you take a lithium-ion battery out to your driveway, you smack it with a hammer, it’ll ignite right there. They’re very dangerous. We have to handle them properly. So, the conference is designed to help practitioners in the environmental services sector. We have to have space to understand how to do this. How do I capture it? How do I safely manage that stream of material? How do I ship it conscientiously? And what are the markets through which we can push that material back into the supply chain so it can be a recycled materials circular chain?

John: And the good news is when handled responsibly, these batteries are 97, 98% recyclable.

Jim: Absolutely. That’s the critical thing to remember. There’s a lot of value there. And when you think about things like zinc and lithium and cobalt and all these critical materials that are in these batteries, they’re hugely valuable, hugely valuable, very expensive. And so, the economic proposition is there, but the industry needs to learn and grow as to how we can best handle those materials. And that’s what we’ve tried to create with the event a forum through which people can learn and grow the infrastructure to support end-of-life batteries.

John: When and where is the event being held this year, Jim?

Jim: We’re going to be in Atlanta, Georgia, and the dates are June 12 and 13. I think that’s the right date. Did I get that right, John?

John: No.[laughter] It’s okay.

Jim: That’s what I got for flying home on a red-eye last night.

John: No, that’s why we can correct this. I know it’s the day after Father’s Day, which is the 17th, [laughter] so I know it’s not the 12th or 13th. That’s okay.

Jim: We are 17 and 18 in Atlanta, Georgia, and we’re going to

John: Let me ask it again. Let me ask it again so he has it just that. Jim, where and when is the event being held this year?

Jim: This year, we’re going to again be in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s the heart of the new battery belt across the country, so that’s the reason we’re in Atlanta, and we’re going to be June 17 and 18.

John: Wonderful. Who are some of the keynote speakers? If people sign up to come to this great event, who can they expect to see speaking at this event?

Jim: Well, we’ve got a lot of really great speakers. We’ve got consumer brands like Staples, who’s right out there with their supply stores all across the country. We’ve got their leader of sustainability coming in. We’ve got consumer brands like Energizer, and Energizer Battery. Their head of sustainability is coming in. We’ve got Call to Recycle involved. They’re running one of the largest battery collection programs that exist in the nation. And we’ve got important processors. The CEO of Ascend Elements, who’s a large battery recycler, is going to be our keynote speaker. And we’ve got industry leaders from across the space, people like yourself, John, who’s going to be involved at an ERI, as well as companies like Regency Technologies.

Many of the electronics recyclers that are in the country are some of the top folks at the front lines of battery recycling in North America. But we’ve also got groups like SP Global Plats, right? So, they… These folks are going to provide business intelligence on what’s going on in the markets for these materials, and how people can take advantage of them. We’ve got companies like Lighting Resources, who are absolute experts on how you sort by battery chemistry. How do you ship these materials efficiently and responsibly? So, we’ve got some top-notch industry leaders coming for this year’s program.

John: Do you expect… Last year’s event was a smashing success. I loved the whole event. And learned a lot there. Do you expect this year’s event to even be bigger and better?

Jim: We do. The interest has been, you know, off the charts. And again, part of it’s because batteries are everywhere. Part of it’s because batteries are a real challenge at the end of life. So, we’ve had a tremendous response.

John: That’s awesome. Where can people learn more about the conference and register to attend?

Jim: Yes, we would invite you to visit batteryrecyclingconference.com. Great. So, it’s batteryrecyclingconference.com.

John: We’ll put that in our show notes for our listeners and viewers. And we’ll also add a registration form in our show notes as well. You know, Jim, you and I are good friends outside of, you know, all the other things we do together at your great conferences. But it’s fun to text you or to call you because, you know, it’s like any time I call or text you, it’s fun to just even guess where you’re going to be. One day I call you, and you’re on some island somewhere.

The next time you’re in the Middle East. Or Asia or South America. Talk a little bit about the events you’re producing this year and the rise of the events. And not only the rise of the different, the very type of events you have but also in the geographies that you’re holding them because it’s fascinating. You travel for a reason and with a real purpose and intention. Talk a little bit about the intentionality of the spread of geography of all your events and then also the diversity of your events.

Jim: So, we cover a wide swath. You know, we’re recycling Today, I mentioned earlier, the business magazine for recycling professionals. Recycling isn’t restricted to a material. It’s a lot of different materials. And so, our events are designed to sort of encompass that. Our oldest event is the Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference. And that looks at paper, packaging, plastics, all of those sorts of materials and how those get recycled and what the supply chain looks like for that recycled material stream.

We also… We also produce an event a little bit technical here called the MRF Operations Forum, but an MRF is a materials recovery facility, and that event is designed to help people optimize the operating efficiencies of their plants that lower costs in the recycling stream, but it also ensures maximum recovery. Right. So, we have an event fully dedicated to that. We do an event called Scrap Expo, which is dedicated to the metals recycling business and how people can, whether it’s ferrous, non-ferrous, specialty alloys, or all of those types of materials, how do we complete that recycled materials supply chain process? What’s the technology? What’s the machinery? What do the commodity markets look like for those materials? That event has attendees come from all over the world.

I should have mentioned that last year, our Paper and Plastics Recycling Conference, which we host in Chicago every fall. We had attendees… We had attendees from 20, I think it was 28 nations attending the event, right? We’ve all come to Chicago to spend several days just deep into the weeds on how we make the recycling industry work and make it better. We have our Battery and Critical Metals Recycling Conference, which we mentioned, and we also have our Corporate Growth Conference, which is an event that’s dedicated to the broad environmental services industry, but it’s dedicated to helping entrepreneurs in the space find a channel to fund the businesses. It’s also an event that helps those who are stewarding ESG investment funds to find investments that are true green companies, right?

Companies who make sustainability work, and that’s a big part of what we do with the Corporate Growth Conference. So that’s produced under our Waste Today brand, but it’s a critical piece in the link. And then we participate in events all over the world. As you mentioned, I’m heading to Munich, Germany on Saturday to be there for the EFOT convention, which is the largest recycling and environmental machinery show in the world. Two weeks later, I’ll be in Copenhagen, Denmark for the Bureau of International Recycling’s annual convention, and we’ll have people from all over the country, and all over the world. I’m sorry, but very early next year, we’ll be back in India for the Materials Recycling Association of India’s annual conference. So, we try to be very involved globally, and reason is because supply chains are global, no supply chain is independent of others across the world. And you know that well, John, your business is, you know, very far-reaching.

John: Borderless. It’s a borderless industry.

Jim: Yes, it’s borderless. And so, we very much try to be engaged and involved across the supply chain. And also, to understand what the newest trends are, what’s happening in legislation and regulatory frameworks that may change the way the industry has to work or respond, and what is happening in the technological world. How are we moving technology forward to be able to increase recovery and increase quality? It’s amazing to me how technology has advanced. I mentioned a few minutes ago, AI technology that’s being used in the industry today. But my goodness, we use robotics and near-infrared sorting technology. It’s just… It’s so advanced. And so, we want to keep up on that so we can share that with our readers.

John: That’s exciting. Jim, it’s always just exciting to talk with you. Again, for our listeners and viewers to find Jim and to subscribe to his great publication, please go to www.recyclingtoday.com to sign up for the Battery Recycling Conference, which is upcoming. And I’ll be there with some of my colleagues from ERI. Please go to www.batteryrecyclingconference.com. Jim Keefe, you’re not only a good friend, but you’re also just a wealth of information when it comes to the recycling industry. I’m so grateful for not only your time today on the Impact Podcast, but for all that you do with your colleagues at the Recycling Today Media Group to make the world a better place.

Jim: Well, that’s very kind of you, John. Thanks so much for the support. And for all that you do support the industry. And very much. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to be on the Impact Podcast and share some of what we’re doing with you and all of your listeners. Thank you.

John: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage, or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. 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 works, visit www.impactpodcast.com. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.