Disrupting the Battery Recycling Space with Leo Raudys of Call2Recycle

June 13, 2024

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Leo Raudys is President CEO of Call2Recycle, North America’s longest running battery stewardship organization, working on a carbon and waste free future. As president and CEO at Call2Recycle, 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.


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John Shegerian : Do you have a suggestion for a rockstar Impact Podcast guest? Go to impactpodcast.com and just click be a guest to recommend someone today. 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 For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.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 honored to have with me today my good and longtime friend, Leo Raudys. He’s the president and CEO of Call to Recycle. Welcome, Leo, back to the Impact Podcast.

Leo Raudys: John, good to see you again.

John: It’s always great to see you, Leo, and we’ve had a lot of fun over the years working on a lot of important issues, but today we’re going to be talking about the great brand that you’re the CEO and president of Call to Recycle. But before we do that, I want to share with our listeners a little bit about your fascinating and important background because some of the listeners and viewers haven’t seen or heard you discuss this before. Talk a little bit about your legendary and storied career in the environmental protection space and where you started and how you ended up here at Call to Recycle.

Leo: Yeah, it’s a pretty long and winding road as you know. I mean, I grew up in Chicago. My parents were war refugees actually. So they settled in Chicago, met first, and we settled in Chicago and I grew up in the city, but always had a love of the natural world, and we would regularly get out of the city like once or twice a year up to northern Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota, just to be out in nature. And that was just really just taken by it. That just really formed my worldview and what I was interested in. So that led me to pursue a career in, or I would say an educational career in biology in college. So went to University of Illinois, Chicago, studied biology and psychology, got a graduate degree in ecology at the University of Minnesota, and I always thought I was going to be one of these guys who’s working out in the field collecting samples, forestry, things like that. And just by total randomness, I ended up in the environmental protection field, which is really more populated by engineers and [inaudible] scientists. And so worked as the state regulator for many years and then moved into the private sector where you and I met working in electronics recycling and climate change issues at Best Buy. Did that for a number of years, moved on to do some other things in between then and now, taught at the University of Minnesota for a bit. But yeah, I’ve been in the sustainability realm ever since I left government back in the late early 2000s and came out to Seattle, which is where I live now. I’ve been here about five years. I worked for Microsoft for a few years. That’s what brought me out here. And now I’m at Call to Recycle, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few years. It’s been a pretty interesting ride. Never would’ve predicted it.

John: Yeah. But do you feel that the background you had both in the public side and the private sector give you a great balance of information and inform you to then be the CEO and the president of Call to Recycle now?

Leo: Oh, very much so because we’re a nonprofit and we really do operate in that space between the for-profit private sector and the public sector government. So being able to understand both of those worlds, how people talk, what they’re interested in, understanding stakeholder perspectives, it’s super, super valuable. But even at my time in Microsoft where I worked in the data center and the cloud division, we would work a lot with communities who were interested in understanding what the company was trying to do in terms of selling data centers. And I felt, for me personally, just having some experience in working with stakeholders and communities, understanding how passionate people can be, it’s been pretty key. So I feel pretty blessed to have had a diverse set of experiences that I lean on all the time, and for sure it’s helpful in my current job. Absolutely.

John: You’ve been the president and CEO of Call to recycle the last couple of years, and for our listeners and viewers who want to find you and your great colleagues at Call to Recycle and all the important work you’re doing there, please go to call the number two recycle.org, call2recycle.org. Talk a little bit about some of lessons learned and the battery recycling landscape that you now see since you’ve joined Call to Recycle, and looking backwards a little bit, a couple of your favourite wins and accomplishments since starting that great and new position.

Leo: Yeah, we’ve had a lot going on in the last few years, so maybe what I’ll do is just give a brief overview of who we are and might help people understand just what we do and why we’re here. So actually this year is our 30th anniversary. So we’ve been around since 1994, and we were formed by a group of battery companies that, most of which are with us still to this day on our board as key partners, but they formed us basically to responsibly manage batteries that end up water. Back then it was mostly nickel–cadmium batteries. We’ve evolved along at the time, so most of what we collect now is lithium-ion batteries and increasingly single use batteries. But we’re a nonprofit organization and we basically we’re here to set up and run battery collection networks across the country. So we’ve got over, I think last count, 18,000 collection sites across the United States, and last year we collected 8 million pounds of batteries. But it’s pretty interesting as far as the last few years, what’s been notable is just the absolute explosion of categories in batteries. So for most of our time we collect this small batteries, the [inaudible] AAAs button batteries, things like that. And that’s still a core part of what we do, but in the last few years, we moved into [inaudible], outdoor power equipment, EVs, to some degree grid storage batteries. On the inside they’re all the same, but the challenges in terms of how to actually get those things out of market and properly recycle is quite different there.

John: Also Knowles have been explosion of new products or products that historically have been gas powered or powered otherwise are now using batteries. But then also you have the convergence of the, no pun intended, the explosion of battery fires at the same time. And talk a little bit about managing that ongoing ecosystem and expanding your business at the same time.

Leo: Yeah, so on the first part, on the conversion and gas powered equipment, that’s been a pretty big driver change for us. So actually the last month we launched a new program with six manufacturers that make outdoor power equipment. So it’s the Sander Black and Becker to [inaudible] et cetera, companies that all that are making batteries. They’re uni big. We’ll sit on the back load of a lawnmower or power or a gas or what used to be a gas power leaf blower. So yeah, we’re definitely moving into these bigger batteries, because of the conversion away from gasoline powered equipment. The emergency and the fire issues can be pretty profound. I mean, it really drives most of the investment that we do in our day-to-day work. So if you think about what it takes to collect a battery safely and transport it from a collection site, let say if it’s a Home Depot or a Lowe’s or a Best Buy or a local community center. So we provide them with all the equipment to be able to gather those things up. We train folks to handle them properly, and then you’ve got to get it shipped off to sorter and then recycle. So that’s, there’s a whole lot of steps that go into that. There’s a lot of regulation that federal government in particular pays quite a lot of attention to for very good reasons. Because you don’t want to have a fire in a recycling facility or on a truck, things like that. But the same things that you have to do to move those batteries that are just purely end of life. In other words, they’re fine, the condition is good. They’re just out of juice, but the regulations that apply to those also apply to the batteries you have to move after incident, say if there’s a fire or if there’s a recall or something like that, but times 10. So you’ve got to run the basics, but then once you’re at the point of dealing with a damaged battery, the risks are a lot higher and more profound. So it’s interesting, I mean, since we’ve been doing this for three decades, all the things that we learned along the way about how to manage all these little tiny batteries everywhere and thousands of collection locations, you apply the same lessons to managing the bigger riskier stuff. Yeah. So we’ve been seeing quite a lot of work, quite a lot of interest. People reach out to us for help to do this because this is what we do.

John: Talk a little bit about the growth of battery recycling vis-a-vis legislation. Has the velocity of the new legislation that outlaws batteries from landfills and puts some guardrails around how batteries can be handled? What you expected or has that actually, has the velocity increased more than you were even thinking of?

Leo: Yeah, it’s the latter. So you and I met back in the day when waste regulations were just starting to hit everybody’s radar. It’s a very similar phenomenon. So when I joined Call to Recycle in 2021, we started to see some activity at the state level, but I would say in the last year and a half it’s been accelerating dramatically, so even faster than what we saw [inaudible]. And the reason for that is a concern about fires. So we have waste haulers, waste management companies, people who are running the waste handle facilities, they’re seeing fires in batteries, so they want to make sure that they do everything they can and keep those out of the waste stream, out of the traditional recycling waste stream. So yeah, it’s going pretty fast and broad. So I anticipate that within the next couple of years, we’re going to have just a substantial number of states that have new laws in the books. And what’s interesting about it is, so these laws typically [inaudible]. One is they put the responsibility on the manufacturer of the battery putting in the market. They put the responsibility onto them to set programs to collect and recycle the batteries. But to be able to do that in a way that meets their policy goals, they require quite a bit more than that. So yeah, you have to let them know what percentage of the battery that you’re collecting are being recycled, how are you reaching out to communities to let them know that there are collection sites out there and how to properly respond, why should they recycle batteries? How do you make sure that communities, rural communities, places of very little population also have access to recycling options and not just in the big cities and towns. And so they care quite a bit about that. So this is the things that the policymakers are interested in are pretty consistent, but they’re difficult to do. And the other thing that’s interesting, which you and I have talked about a bit, is the states policymakers, regulators have come around to a pretty different view on what should be recycled. So for years, we would focus on rechargeable batteries. That’s what we started doing. And for a long time, there was this belief that single use batteries, alkaline batteries, things that people typically put in other [inaudible], something like that, just really didn’t have a lot of recyclable value and there really wasn’t a really compelling reason to do it. There was a lot of information out there about the environmental benefits, et cetera. That thinking has really changed, and I think it’s changed for a couple of different reasons. One is the recyclability of the single use batteries is pretty high. So we see numbers in the mid to upper 90% range of what you can actually get out of these batteries back into commerce. So things like carbon, zinc, manganese, just the basic steel that goes in these scrap metal, it’s pretty high recovery. So I think there’s just people come around to serve different mindset in terms of whether it’s worth it to keep these things out of a landfill. I think generally now people are agreeing that yes, you should keep them out of landfill.

John: Let’s stop there for a second. So I mean, no battery, rechargeable, lithium-ion, alkaline should be going to a landfill or river or a lake or anywhere like that?

Leo: Really shouldn’t. I mean, we always encourage people to recycle all batteries and we don’t have the ability to do that everywhere, but that’s increasing. You and I have been working on this project with Staples to do that in their stores, and it’s just been just amazing to watch them pull that together. And what they’re doing is basically in alignment with what the policymakers have really come to understand, which you need to get all the batteries back. The other interesting thing, and I think this is why the Staples work is really interesting, is it really drives home the point that consumer confusion and user recycling is absolutely critical to making sure you do this right. And what historically we have had a challenge with is when you tell people, okay, you can recycle this battery, you can’t recycle that battery or that one needs to go there versus that one needs to go there, the first instinct for most people is that, you know what? I’m just going to leave it in my drawer and I’ll figure it out next day. And so it creates a lot of friction in the system. What we see in state of Vermont, which a few years ago required, we put into place some regulations on single use batteries, not rechargeable. Just single use batteries, we actually saw a strong uptick and continue to see a strong uptick not only in the single use, but also rechargeables. And to us, that’s pretty clear evidence that you just have to let give people options to recycle, follow them. So that’s a pretty big change that we’re seeing in the marketing.

John: That’s so interesting. Plus also, so if the macro premises, none of these batteries should be going to a landfill, river, lake or anywhere inappropriate. They should all be being collected by responsible collection agencies like yours. And you are the biggest in the United States in North America by far, correct?

Leo: Yeah.

John: And they should be going to a responsible recycler who can get what high 90s, 96 to 98% of the materials out of them back into the circular economy, which I mean, that’s a prospect that everyone should understand and really adhere to. I mean, it makes total sense. People shouldn’t be sneaking this stuff into their garbage cans anymore. There’s no need to anymore.

Leo: Yeah, and the city where I live in, Seattle, I mean they’ve actually prohibited those from going into the waste stream, which has been a good first step and state of Washington, as I’m sure you know, passed the law last year to require battery recycling. That’s going to start happening I think in about 18 months or so. Yeah, these are all very positive trends and literally it was all happening in the last year.

John: Leo, out of the first couple of years of you being the CEO and the president of Call to Recycle, what’s one or two things that you’re most proud of that’s happened during those first two years?

Leo: It’s funny. It’s probably not going to be what you think. To me, it’s just the amazing people that we’ve been able to keep and bring into the organization. So we’ve hired a number of people in the last two years in particular, just since our programs have grown, and it’s just an amazing team that does inspiring things every single day. And I knew they were great people to begin with because I’ve worked with Call to Recycle in the past, but I had no idea. And on top of, people who have been with us historically for years, we’re attracting incredible talent, really enthusiastic, just great people, super highly capable. So to me, that’s been the best piece and continues to be an absolute joy. In fact, we’re going to have an all staff meeting here in the other week. Everybody’s going to be travelling from across the country like Canada to meet everybody. It’s going to be fantastic.

John: That’s wonderful. For our listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Leo Raudys with us today. He’s the president and CEO of Call to Recycle. To find Leo and all his colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in responsibly recycling batteries and collecting them across the United States and Canada, please go to call 2, it’s a number two, recycle.org, call2recycle.org. Leo, what’s coming up in the next couple years? I mean, lots more legislation, more collection points. I don’t think a month goes by, maybe even two weeks, where I don’t see you announcing another partnership in Canada. I see numerous partnerships announced in the United States. What projects or initiatives that are coming up that you’re most excited about in 2024 and 2025?

Leo: Yeah, well, I’ve already talked about a few of them. I think the one that I haven’t really mentioned is electric vehicles. That one is, that’s pretty fascinating to see that unfold. It is a really different animal. I mean, again, inside the battery pack, it’s the same stuff that you get in your own rechargeable battery in your alarm system. So from that perspective, it’s no different. But the form factor, they’re just much bigger. The challenge for both the automakers, the dealers and used car market, the auction houses, the scrap yards is very different. So we’re starting to see some things happening on the policy front. State of New Jersey passed to law, California is looking at doing something. So I think we’re going to see some movement toward regulation, but I think more important than that is there’s a pretty broad recognition within the industry with the automakers that they both have a responsibility to make sure that these boundaries, whenever they’re at the end their life, find their way to an appropriate responsible place. So there’s a responsibility piece, but also there’s a pretty strong business in parity. So you mentioned partnership. So we have a new partnership with Sun Elements, and what we’re doing there is we’re working with them to move Ford batteries within their ecosystem. So we’re handling all the logistics for these end of life and other batteries that Ford was responsible for. They want these batteries, they want the materials. So I think there’s a pretty fundamental shift in the strategic thinking and mindset among folks that is just really driving some really interesting innovations. We saw this coming a couple of years ago. We decided to invest in building out a software platform to handle the transport and logistics of these batteries because again, it’s a very different thing from small consumer batteries. So we have a new technology that’s essentially a travel agent for batteries. If you’re an end user with a battery, you could book that trip to a recycler or repurpose or things like that. I think we’re going to see more of that type of innovation. We’ll be doing a lot of great companies out there, startups, I think about a company here in Seattle called Recurrent, which is doing a lot of really good work as it relates to EVs and used pro market. Just really interesting stuff.

John: When you’re talking to legislators and other folks on the public side, is it that hard now to convince them in a world that really cares about the shift from the linear to circular economy and ESG principles and basically getting the environment on the right side of being decarbonized? Is it hard now comparatively where we were when you and I first met and getting people to climb up the mountain to understand why e-waste should be banned from landfills? How is it today, 17, 18 years later in 2024, to convince legislators to do the right thing and ban batteries, all types of batteries from landfills, and then to actually legislate them to be handled by responsible parties?

Leo: It’s interesting. It’s largely a bipartisan issue that everybody agrees on. So it’s actually, I think the education piece is easier than it was for e-waste, and I think it’s because of the profound implications of doing it wrong. So legislators hear from their constituents, they hear about fires, they want to make sure that people are safe. So I think there’s a pretty broad consensus, and generally what we see, we don’t lobby, we’re nonprofit, but we provide technical expertise to the policymakers. We help them understand how to do this well. It’s really about figuring out what’s the best thing to do. I think I just mentioned EVs. What’s interesting there is I don’t see really a lot of disagreement out there that the batteries need to be handled responsibly and come back into commerce and just really that circular mindset. I think the question that people are still trying to figure out is what’s the best way to do that? And since that problem is a little bit farther out in terms of time, I think people are taking their time to try to get it right, which is a good thing. But yeah, to your original question, there’s pretty broad agreement, I think. It’s pretty remarkable. It’s happened pretty quickly.

John: Is really one of the main benefits of Call to Recycle that responsible recyclings, one of the pillars, if not the number one pillar of good responsible recycling in any category is convenience. And the beauty of Call to Recycle is that it literally creates the most convenient way to recycle your batteries, whatever ZIP code you are in North America.

Leo: Yeah, we try. We can always do better. I think we’ve got, as I mentioned, we’ve got around 18,000 collection sites out there. A lot of the sites, we can’t take single use batteries that we’re building down and up. That’s why the Staples project is just so incredibly impressive and exciting. So I think there’s a lot of work to be done. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s about the ease and the access. That’s really what animates what we do. We don’t tend to focus as much on the counts collected and the number of sites, and certainly we track all that. What we really care about is accessibility. It’s like we’re making decisions where to do collection. How do we make sure that we actually, we just have enough easily accessible sites for people because you got to go farther [inaudible].

John: Leo, one thing that you and I have learned over the course of our lifetime, and we’re pretty much the same age and same generation, have had very similar journeys in many ways, is that change is going to happen and it’s going to happen faster than we probably ever thought. I was reading the other day about a new battery coming out of China, not saying it’s commercially ready yet, but they said they’ve already started testing it a nuclear battery that lasts 50 years. What have you heard about that and what other new technologies are coming in batteries that we should be thinking about or be made aware of?

Leo: Yeah. Well, I haven’t actually dug into that one. I did see that. It provoked a lot of questions for sure. But in China, they’re basically going the [inaudible] lithium phosphate batteries, and it’s a different problem to solve, and I think I’m just not smart enough to be able to see around all those corners, but it just seems like there’s always something a little bit better. There’s going to be a point at which we’re going to reach the limit of how much power you can actually get off of a standard lithium-ion battery. And I think that’s going to drive more change in another direction at some point down the road and you get lighter, cheaper batteries that essentially give us what we need. So it’s remarkable how much innovation is constantly happening in the space. I mean, like I said, I’d seen the [inaudible] on that one and I’m like, yeah, I’m going to check that out for sure.

John: Me too.

Leo: We don’t plan to collect them just say that.

John: Got you. When it comes to benchmarking, Leo a, I call the group leaders like you who are chief impact officers, chief sustainability officers, or CEOs leading great organizations like yours, one of the coolest fraternities in the world. Talk a little bit about working with your counterparts and colleagues around the world that do similar type of battery collections in different countries and how that works in terms of sharing best practices and inspiring each other and helping each other out.

Leo: It’s a big part of what we do in our network. So we’re known as a producer responsibility organization or a PRO. People call them all sorts of different kinds of things, but essentially a nonprofit that organizes collection of batteries. Actually, you can find someone like us in a lot of different categories. You have the e-waste, you have them in carpet paint. We just happen to be batteries. There’s a fairly well established network of organizations like us in Europe that we interact with quite regularly. They’re a great source of technical support, knowledge, experience because they’ve been at this for a long time. We work very closely with our sister organization in Canada, shares our name Call to Recycle Canada. They actually used to be part of us and we spun them out several years back and then even places as far flung as Australia. So Australia has started up a very similar organization. So a couple of years ago they reached out to us and they asked us for our advice, how to set up their program. So it feels very similar to the sustainability community that I got to know when I was in the corporate sector in that people are very focused and animated by our mission and want to work together to make things work better. It’s pretty fun.

John: You are obviously, Leo, a sustainability OG. You’ve been doing this most of your career and your adult life. Talk a little bit about outside of your industry, how do you get inspired and where do you find aspiration in terms of benchmarking with different industries and different brands? Where do you look to for your inspiration outside of the industry that you’re in?

Leo: And maybe this will surprise you, maybe it won’t, it’s through what my kids are experiencing in their professional careers as they’re getting started. So I’ve got a couple kids. One is he works in the entertainment industry and I learned a lot about how that very much more creative driven industry works and I get lots of great ideas. I was just talking with him. My daughter works in tech. Same thing. When I see the way a lot of the companies that she works with approach innovation, it gives me ideas. And just in my everyday life, I like to read a lot. I’m very into physical activity and that gives me time to just get peace and away from things and think about things fresh, any number of things, talking to people like you.

John: Leo, it’s always great spending time with you both in person and we’re going to be in person together in June, but also on this show. I thank you always for the time that you spend with us because you inspire me, you inspire everyone who listens and hears you and all the great work you’re doing at Call to Recycle. To find Leo and his colleagues and all the great work they’re doing to collect and responsibly recycle batteries, please go to call 2, it’s the number two, recycle.org, call2recycle.org. Leo Raudys, thank you for your time today. Thank you for your friendship, but more importantly today, thank you and your colleagues at Call to Recycle for making the world a better place.

Leo: Thanks, John.

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 let’s engage.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 can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

Consumers can find a drop-off location nearest them by visiting www.call2recycle.org/locator or by calling 1-877-2-RECYCLE