Recycling and Throwing Away Batteries

The Power Is With the People

06-01-2005 // Kim A. O’Connell

Americans discard millions of potentially toxic batteries each year; find out how you can help prevent the heavy metals they contain from harming the environment—and your health

PAUL WALLACE admits he has never paid much attention to environmental issues. "I’m no Captain Green," he says, "but I am a scuba diver who realizes that anything affecting the ocean affects me." A resident of New Orleans, he heard that discarded batteries were leaching toxic substances into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s when the alarm bells sounded. Spurred to action, Wallace recently put out a box in his office to collect all of the household batteries his colleagues might otherwise toss in the trash. "If I’m going to recycle my batteries," he says, "I thought other people might want to do it, too."

One tiny battery may not seem like it could do much harm to the environment, but multiply it by millions, or even billions, and the potential for problems is serious. Americans are buying and discarding batteries in record numbers. According to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), a whopping 125,000 tons of batteries are discarded each year in this country, posing serious threats to public health and the environment. When dumped into landfills, they can leach mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel into the groundwater. When incinerated, these heavy metals—linked to cancers and respiratory illnesses—are released into the air.

"The particular difficulty with the materials in batteries is not just that they’re toxic, but they’re also persistent," says Joanna Underwood, president of Inform, Inc., a New York City environmental research group. "When they get into the environment, they don’t break down and the cumulative impact is enormous. This makes keeping them out of the waste stream absolutely crucial." Recycling also recovers metals and plastics that can be used for new products and reduces the energy required to make batteries from virgin materials.

Recognizing this, states such as Florida, Minnesota and Rhode Island have boosted battery recycling through manufacturer take-back programs. Still, many Americans are unaware of how easy it is to recycle these items.

Instead of tossing them in the trash, other less wasteful options include limiting the number of battery-powered products you use, choosing exactly the right battery for the job (see below) and buying rechargeable batteries. Rechargeables do cost more initially, but they can outlast hundreds of disposable batteries, saving you money in the long run. They are also easily recycled: More than 2,500 retailers, including The Home Depot, Radio Shack and Sears, provide battery recycling collection boxes at stores nationwide. Last year, reports RBRC, nearly four and a half million pounds of rechargeables were collected in the United States and Canada.

Or as Wallace has learned, recycling batteries is as easy as throwing them into a big box and getting them to a collection center. His coworkers agree. One regularly brings in batteries from her children’s toys. "When this box fills," she told Wallace, "I’ll supply the next one."

Virginia writer Kim O’Connell recycles all of her used batteries.

Making the Best Battery Decisions

  • Purchase rechargeable batteries wherever possible. (Note: They do lose their charge over time, so they are not the best choice in all applications, such as smoke alarms.)
  • When rechargeables can no longer be recharged (after as many as 1,000 uses, according to some estimates), bring them to a retailer that is participating in a recycling program.
  • Look for products that eliminate or minimize battery use, and avoid products with unnecessary features that might require additional battery power. Some electronic devices also give you the option to run at a lower power setting, extending battery life.
  • Study the different kinds of batteries on the market. That will help you choose the optimal battery for each application and maximize its power.
  • For additional information about batteries and recycling, visit www.earth911.org. To find the location of a rechargeable battery recycling drop-off site near you, go to www.rbrc.com/consumer.
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