Monday, October 20, 2008

Batteries and the Environment

Do you give much thought to batteries? No? Neither do I. My storage closet has the usual assortment of sizes and types ... none of which seem to be what I'm looking for when the TV remote goes dead or the flashlight doesn't work (I knew I should have checked it before going camping).

The other day, the battery in the toothbrush died (may it rest in peace). The storage closet didn't have the one we needed (of course) and a quick look through drawers in the bathroom and kitchen got us nowhere (although I found a 9 volt that I didn't know we had). So ... with teeth that needed brushing ... we headed out to a nearby store. We chose one of the rechargeable varieties that came with its own recharger. Feeling proud of our choice (rechargeable is better than a single use, right), we headed home.

Purchasing a battery ... such a simple task ... sent my brain into overtime, wondering whether rechargeable was indeed better than single use, wondering what old batteries of any type do to landfills and wondering if batteries can be recycled. It turns out that the subject of batteries is a complex one.

Here are some interesting facts:
  • Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries per year (these are either single-use or rechargeable and are typically used for toys, phones, tools and laptops)
  • Americans purchase nearly 100 million wet-cell batteries per year (used for cars, boats, etc.)
  • All batteries need some sort of heavy metal to function properly
The best environmental choice would be no batteries at all. But let's face it, we are a society in love with our laptops, hand held tools, digital cameras and cell phones. We're on the go and want our gadgets to go with us ... without a cord. So ... if we're going to use batteries, which is the best: disposable or rechargeable?

In 1996 a law was passed in the U.S. regulating mercury levels in batteries. Since then, most companies have either eliminated or almost eliminated its use in single use batteries. This is a step in the right direction. However, since these batteries no longer contain expensive heavy metals, there is no incentive for companies to recycle them. Additionally, the public now has the perception that it's OK to toss them into the garbage. While they are less toxic than they used to be ... they still contain toxic substances which leach out into our landfills. And a lot of them are ending up in landfills.

Rechargeable batteries continue to make use of potentially toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead. Their long life, however, and the abundance of recycling centers means these metals can easily be diverted from the waste stream. A typical rechargeable battery, used long term for things like computers or digital cameras, can usually be recharged 500-800 times before it loses its ability to hold a charge. It would take hundreds of the disposable variety to equal that kind of lifespan. There are over 50,000 recycling centers nationwide for rechargeable batteries, many at large retail chains like Home Depot, Circuit City and Sears.

Rechargeable batteries, if recycled, are the environmental favorite. Disposable batteries are difficult to recycle and usually end up in landfills. Disposable batteries are considered hazardous household waste so ... be sure to check with your local waste management to find out how to best dispose of them.

Recycling rechargeable batteries is the key. To recycle them, check with the retail companies listed above or the following:

In the US & Canada:

In the US:

By the way ... companies that recycle rechargeable batteries usually handle cell phone recycling as well (another item that I didn't realize could be recycled).

So ... I'll bet that you're looking at batteries in a whole new light now, aren't you?

As always ... I'd love to hear from you!

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