Dr. Roopali Phadke, professor of environmental studies

Macalester College has been awarded a $1.77 million grant from the Department of Energy through its Battery Recycling, Reprocessing, and Battery Collection Funding Opportunity. Macalester has the distinction of being the only higher education institution among the 17 awardees of the $125 million funding program, which is designed to increase consumer participation in battery recycling programs, improve the economics of consumer battery recycling, and help establish state and local collection programs.

The project, called CollectED, will highlight the urgent need to gather critical metals, underscore the importance of battery education, and emphasize that it will take a social collective to make this happen. 

Led by Dr. Roopali Phadke, professor of environmental studies, CollectED has the potential to position the state of Minnesota as a national leader in designing and implementing educational and outreach programs around battery storage and recycling. The project also involves a diverse team of interdisciplinary partners including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Repowered, Upstream Exhibits, Field Guide, and REcharge Academy

Professor Phadke shares more details about what the team hopes to achieve over the three-year grant.  

Why has battery recycling become more important to consider addressing right now? 

There are two main reasons. The first is that we don’t have enough supplies of domestic minerals to build the technologies and infrastructures that we need in order to address climate change. Whether that’s electric vehicles, solar panels, or handheld electronic devices, they all require minerals and we can’t just extract them fast enough. That means it’s important for us to look at recycling as a solution. 

The second issue is that landfilling these batteries is extremely dangerous to communities and the natural environment. The Washington Post recently reported that over 5,000 fires are caused every year in the U.S. from lithium-ion batteries alone. Nearly 70% of heavy metals that leach into the air, water and soils in landfills come from improperly disposed of e-waste. This can lead to serious human health impacts.  

Battery recycling is actually a win-win-win because it produces the materials we need for the new energy economy; it addresses the hazards of improper disposal; and it protects the environment. 

What are CollectED’s main goals?

Batteries are everywhere in our lives and are driving the energy revolution. Yet, most of us lack even a basic understanding about how they work and why it’s so important to recycle them.

There is a lot of work to do to educate the public about what batteries are and what we do with them after their lives are spent. And so for me, this project is about the social life of a battery. I’m interested in helping our communities understand questions like where the materials come from? Is it ethical to buy an electric vehicle if the materials are coming from China or Congo? What do we do with a battery once it’s spent? What are the secondary purposes for batteries, especially as we move to larger and larger ones?

The project will have a strong messaging and education component. Can you give some examples of what you expect that work to look like in practice?

The project has three prongs. The first, which is really exciting for me, is designing a new public exhibit. We’ll have a permanent exhibit that will be added to the Minnesota State Fair’s Eco Experience building. We will also have a mobile exhibit that takes the most popular elements from the fair and turns them into a traveling library exhibit, which will be distributed by the State of Minnesota’s interlibrary loan program. The grant also includes creating a DIY guide so that this exhibit could be replicated by other museums, universities, and libraries around the country. 

The second prong involves developing a REcharge Academy to train both formal and informal educators. Everyone from physics teachers to people who run after-school programs can join us in learning about what batteries are and how to generate interesting and fun activities to expose children, and their families, to this new energy revolution. Half of the spots in these academies will be for Minnesotans and the other half will be open for teachers from anywhere in the country. 

The third part involves creating a digital interface called a StoryMap, where we will be recording audio and video stories from places where battery recycling is happening. We will also design interactive maps so viewers can locate their closest battery recycling facility and learn how to safely prepare material for disposal. The StoryMap will be a freely available resource that can help educators share this important information.  

CollectED’s target demographics are youth and their caregivers. What’s the thinking behind that?

There are a number of reasons. One is that the research has told us that youth are a really pivotal behavioral-change vector in communities. They are on the leading edge of technology adoption, and so targeting that group is really important because they’re tech savvy. They are buying the stuff, and they’re also teaching their families what to do with it. Young people also care deeply about climate change and they want to know what they can do about it. It’s a very personal issue about their future.

What makes Minnesota an ideal place to engage in this work?

Minnesota is a national leader in both recycling and climate policy. That’s the bright side. But the darker side is that there are significant racial and ethnic inequalities in education and experience here. I’m trying to position this as a project that focuses on environmental justice and addressing some of these disparities. 

What are the barriers you’ve identified that this project will need to address or overcome?

The first stage of the project is to actually do research on socioeconomic barriers. We will learn more about why consumers are so confused about how batteries work and why they must be recycled, and better understand the kinds of messages that resonate with key groups.

In my presentations I talk about the “drawer of shame.” Everybody’s got one and it’s full of cell phones, laptops, and other spent devices that they know they shouldn’t throw away, but they have no idea what else to do with them. And if they know where to bring them, a lot of times it’s not free, right? So they take it to a disposal site and find out they have to pay $20 or $30 per item to dispose of them and they take it home and put it back in the drawer. What we’re trying to do is address the lack of knowledge, the lack of access to disposal sites, and help people understand why it’s so important to do this work so we keep materials moving in our energy economy. 

This is a three year grant. What does success look like to you in 2027?

I will be really happy when I see thousands of people making their way through these exhibits. We will be collecting data at every event to try to get a sense of what people learn and how we may have pushed the needle towards behavioral change. 

We are also going to train 100 teachers, and we know each likely has about 100 students. There’s a multiplier effect there. And, those students live in families and communities where they can continue to share their new knowledge. 

Our project will also be at libraries across the state. We don’t know how many patrons we might engage with, but we imagine there will be thousands there too. And then, because this is a federal grant, we will have a lot of opportunities to help replicate this work in other states. 

With this project, the potential to have a significant impact in the state of Minnesota and across the country is pretty huge. 

April 22 2024

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