In a previous Eco-Logical, we offered compelling evidence that rechargeable batteries are a cost-effective way to power all those unaffordable toys your kids want and to run any of the devices you seem to keep chunking lots of batteries into.
Now, what about all your dead batteries, rechargeable or otherwise? Should you recycle them? If you don't, will they leak poisons into the ground at the landfill that will leach all the way to China? No, but there are other disposal problems presented by certain types of batteries.
So, if you want to recycle batteries, where do you go, who do you talk to?
There are many types of consumer batteries, from the lead-acid batteries we use in our cars to the little button batteries in our watches. There are household batteries like AA, AAA, C, D and 9-volt, some of them rechargeable,
some not. But whatever type of battery, they all have chemicals inside them.
Of course, chemicals are not all equally toxic. The three worst "baddies" in batteryland are:
- cadmium, and
Other battery compounds like silver, zinc, and nickel can also be problems, but less so.
Sending any type of battery to the landfill or incinerator means the contents of the battery will ultimately end up getting into the soil, air, groundwater, and/or surface water, and thus eventually into the food chain and drinking-water supply. Thus, the key thing is to make sure batteries with toxic components do not go to the landfill or incinerator in the first place.
Today's standard household batteries—the AA's, AAA's, C's, D's, and 9-volts that you pick up at the supermarket or drug store—have been re-engineered so that the components in them are of low toxicity, making them safe to dispose of with your normal trash. (But consider this: If you're using more than a dozen or so disposable batteries per year, your can probably save a lot of money by going to rechargeables.)
There is one caveat regarding tossing dead household batteries in the trash. If you're rooting around in a closet, drawer, or storage bin and happen upon old batteries
that might have been manufactured prior to 1997—that is, prior to passage of the (gulp) "Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996," which began the phase-out of mercury-based household batteries—then they likely contain mercury, should be considered toxic waste, and should be recycled. Contact your county or municipal government to determine how best to dispose of them.
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Button batteries often contain silver, zinc, or other toxins and should be recycled. For mercury-containing batteries and button batteries, check out recycling options in your locale using Earth911's excellent search tool. You can also check with your local government office of recycling or municipal waste. Finally, if none of those two options prove fruitful but you're still determined to recycle those old batteries, see the sidebar, Bad Things Go in Big Green Boxes.
Rechargeable batteries power everything from portable phones and cordless phones to laptops and PDAs to cordless tools and grooming products. These batteries are usually nickel-cadmium (nicad), lithium ion, or nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH). Nicads are good batteries, but the cadmium in them is toxic. Cadmium in the environment is already a big problem, so it's clear that we want to recycle all nicad batteries. Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion rechargeable batteries are less toxic, but it is still recommended that they be recycled.
The good news is that the law we mentioned in the previous section that banned mercury-containing batteries also set up the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, now known as Call 2 Recycle, which was tasked with managing a collection and recycling program for rechargeable batteries.
Call 2 Recycle accepts rechargeable nicad, NiMH, Lithium-Ion, and small (under 2-lb) sealed lead-acid batteries. They do not accept car batteries, silver- and zinc-based button batteries, or disposable alkaline batteries. Look for these symbols on the batteries to determine whether your rechargeable batteries are covered by the program.
Call 2 Recycle has made it very convenient for you to recycle your rechargeables by getting retail stores like Home Depot, Target, Wal-Mart, and others to serve as collection points. And it's all free of charge. To find a drop-off point near you in the US or Canada, use the
Lead-acid car batteries are one area where the US is doing very well when it comes to battery recycling. Almost all of them are recycled, which is great news, because the lead in car batteries is very toxic and not something we want floating around in our environment.
If you get your car battery replaced at a service center, they will recycle it for you. If you buy a car battery and install it yourself, the store where you buy it should accept your old battery and take care of getting it to a recycling center for you.
Batteries enable our mobility, so it's likely society will be using lots more batteries in the future. But to ensure that we're not slowly poisoning our highly mobile selves, it's important that we do a good job of recycling batteries.
BAD THINGS GO IN BIG GREEN BOXES
If Earth911's locator tool or your local government fail to help you find a recycling solution for your old mercury-containing batteries or button batteries, then consider the Big Green Box. You order the box and then start filling it up with old household batteries of any type, as well as junk electronic equipment like cell phones, laptops, PDAs, cameras, calculators, and cordless tools. Once the box is full—up to 43 pounds worth—you ship it off to the Big Green Box people. The catch? It costs you a total of $58 to get rid of a boxful of toxic stuff.
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