Nearly Four Decades of Pioneering the Battery Recycling Industry

Retriev Technologies

In business since 1984, Retriev Technologies (formerly Toxco Inc.) has grown to become the most diverse battery recycling company in the world, managing all battery chemistries in one facility.

Retriev Technologies is a battery recycling and management company founded in 1984 by Bill McLaughlin, who originally started it as a soil remediation company.

The early years of the company happened to coincide with the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the dissipation of the Cold War (early 1990s); at that time, McLaughlin had relationships with both the national Department of Defense and the Department of Energy, which had been using the most powerful lithium battery ever manufactured – a lithium thionyl chloride battery weighing 550 pounds and containing over 60 pounds of lithium metal – in a missile silo. The batteries were called MESP batteries – Minutemen Extended Survival Power Batteries. In the event of a nuclear attack on the U.S., they would open the silo doors, fire the ICBM, close the silo doors and offer power to sustain life for up to 90 days inside the silo.

The departments were looking to recycle this battery and others like it, so McLaughlin partnered with southern California business owners Terry Adams, from Adams Steel, and Steve Kinsbursky, from Kinsbursky Brothers, to form a partnership, Toxco, to figure out how to recycle these batteries safely.

Finding the way
Toxco would begin by recycling lithium primary batteries, the only company doing so in the world at that time. Toxco recycled around 5000 MESP batteries in a British Columbia facility across the border from Washington. The quantity was initially very hard to manage thanks to a long energy discharge process, but Senior Vice President Ed Green describes this period of the company as a “very exciting time” in its history.

In the 1990s, the operation would grow with the advent of new projects: Toxco would purchase a facility in Ohio and introduce chemical processing into its operations. At the time, Kinsbursky Brothers were committed to recycling lead acid, and nickel batteries, and desired a presence on the east coast.

The company moved into recycling industrial nickel-cadmium batteries and large-format lead-acid batteries in the early-2000s, also purchasing and running retort furnaces and in 2005 began to process consumer type nickel cadmium batteries, producing salable cadmium and nickel products. And Toxco Inc. would become Retriev Technologies.

PhD territory
Green recalls that, up until 2015, Retriev had its own R&D labs with several PhDs. At that time, there was a lot of research and development work in manufacturing certain types of lithium batteries for specific uses, and the company even developed its own prototype cells.

Retriev also had a contract in 2012 with battery company Energizer to produce manganese from recycled alkaline batteries, to put into a new alkaline battery, which would be called the Energizer Eco-Advanced Battery.

Green explains that the lead industry, especially, “has always had a great story [in that] up to 99 percent of automotive SLI (starting, lighting, ignition) batteries are recycled every year. Lead mines have scaled down, even closed, as secondary lead worked for SLI batteries as well as primary lead. This concept of ‘battery to battery’ became Retriev’s vision. The same thing may be possible for nickel metal hydride batteries (Green explains that rare earths are collected from nickel metal hydrides, cadmium from nickel cadmiums, and cobalt and nickel from lithium ion batteries). These recovered elements can be refined back into battery grade materials.

The company has managed to carve out a distinct identity for itself within the battery recycling sector in the last three decades. Ed Green explains that over the years, many other recyclers have come into the industry; however, Retriev’s distinct identity is that, “we manage multiple battery chemistries on one recycling site operation.”

Retriev manages to continually best these efforts at its site in Lancaster by recycling large-format lead acid batteries, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and nickel hydrogen batteries, with another facility recycling lithium ion and alkaline batteries, while still recycling lithium primaries and lithium ions at the British Columbia site.

Sticking to the rules
Green stresses that battery recycling, regulations for transportation, storage, packaging, and labeling of the materials handled by Retriev can be very strict, meaning the company must do appropriate diligence to stay on top of them at every turn. However, Retriev has worked very closely with regulatory agencies (i.e. Ohio E.P.A., United States Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and Occupational Safety & Health Administration) in its effort to keep up to date with compliance issues and sustainability.

Green says firmly that Retriev is always working to improve environmental sustainability, something that the company has demonstrated repeatedly since 1984 and as it continues to grow. The recovery of old battery material and its recycling into new batteries is the company’s goal; “protecting God’s green earth,” as Green puts it.

Green explains that when it comes to customer service and the process of recycling batteries and battery materials, Retriev will “bend over backwards to make it as seamless as possible for our customers to get material to us.” When Retriev receives batteries and related shipments, it accepts the liability that comes along with the potentially hazardous materials and the responsibility of handling a customer’s goods and takes both very seriously.

As part of its roster of services, the company also provides transportation services to customers to a degree in the form of several companies that specialize in the removal of hazardous wastes. Green adds that Retriev “tries to offer clients as much regulatory direction – rather than advice – as possible.”

Earning trust
The company continues to be seen by both its clientele and local communities as a business with a great degree of integrity and one to be trusted within its industry. In fact, at the beginning of 2019, Retriev was recognized by the Lancaster-Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce with the Large Business of the Year award for its efforts. Whether nationally or globally, recognition and appreciation for the company from its customer base continues to grow.

Green admits that as Retriev has grown, it can be a challenge to know which direction to channel that growth. He considers CEO Steve Kinsbursky and board chairman Terry Adams to be visionaries, taking uncharted paths into the future in order to continue the company’s growth. The company does all that it can to prepare for the future despite never knowing what it may hold; in fact, the battery recycling industry is one that Green notes as particularly volatile as it deals with “cutting edge material” that “no one’s written the book on yet. We are a portable society: if it plugs into an outlet, it will soon be battery operated.”

The metal markets tend to drive the battery recycling business, and they have not been friendly in the past few years, so a company like Retriev must tweak processes and improve them to increase the flow of material and keep on track for its growth goals.

It’s been a pleasure and privilege to be a part of the company’s journey – says Green – as its facilities continue their operation, thanks to the efforts of a great team and supportive owners.

“We’ve got a long way to go yet [but we] continue to grow,” he concludes, and as long as batteries are used and in need of disposal, Retriev will provide the out-front technology to do that.

Security as Culture

If you take a close look at all the many gadgets and electronic devices that fit into your daily life you’ll likely find that an exceedingly large number of them are made in China. This probably won’t surprise you, as offshore manufacturing has been a staple of the North American electronics market for almost fifty years. Beyond electronic gizmos, you’ll also find that toys, clothes, even some food products are being manufactured in low-cost foreign regions. This has been a prevailing reality for a very long time, but things are about to change.

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November 18, 2019, 12:54 AM EST

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