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Improve Your Eco-Awareness - Rechargeable Battery Recycling

BatteriesSpecial for Earth Day 2013 (April 22)

Eco-Awareness and Battery Disposal

What is your eco-awareness level when it comes to battery disposal? If you don't know much about the technicalities of batteries and their proper handling, how can you answer this question?

So began a long journey of discovery about batteries, hazardous household waste and the state of recycling in this country that led to getting to know some new companies that are not generally on the radar of the average consumer.

The City of Boston Public Works Department, Clean Harbors, Call2Recycle, the EPA and your little batteries have a lot in common. Stay tuned to find out what. The answers are very interesting.

EPA: "Batteries are Hazardous Waste"

According to the EPA's household hazardous waste (HHW) page:

Leftover household products that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive ingredients are considered to be household hazardous waste (HHW). Products, such as paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides, that contain potentially hazardous ingredients require special care when you dispose of them.

In other words, recycle.

EPARecycle: A battery that is turned into an official recycling center is first sorted sorted by its chemistry.  It then gets shipped to the appropriate facility where it will be processed and transformed. This ensures not only that the batteries are not entering the waste stream, but that valuable resources get reused.

Through processing, the heavy metals are removed and the battery components are recycled separately. In some cases, the recycled materials are able to close the loop in the recycling system by being used to create new batteries. In other cases, the heavy metals can be re-purposed for steel production in cars or for stainless steel items such as golf clubs, kitchen appliances and even silverware. Is

Trash: If a rechargeable battery is deposited in the regular trash for pickup, odds are it will not be disposed of safely. According to the EPA, about 73 percent of municipal waste gets either incinerated or landfilled. While these might serve as resources for disposing of regular garbage, unfortunately, neither is a safe option for household hazardous waste such as rechargeable batteries.  Cadmium, for example, whether ingested or inhaled, is harmful to humans.

Alkaline Batteries - Hazardous?

On the surface it would appear that the EPA statement about hazardous waste applies to all batteries but the qualifier "that contain corrosive, toxic, ignitable or reactive ingredients" leaves the possibility that "benign" batteries (if there are such) may be exempt.

Everyone knows, for example, that car batteries must be recycled. Part of the purchase a new battery includes the option turn in the old battery.  What about the AA batteries in my computer mouse or the D cells in my flashlight?

The EPA website continues with guidelines on the priorities for handling hazardous waste in this order: HHW Reduction, Reuse, Recycling, and Disposal Options. Yet, no mention is made for the exclusion of single-use alkaline batteries. That they may not be considered HHW is supported by a lot of literature and practice.  City of Boston Public Works Superintendent Rob DeRosa stated that: "Double A's, triple A's and alkaline base batteries, they can go into regular trash."  But where does the EPA so indicate this?

The EPA website is difficult to follow and tthis author was not able to determine the EPA designation of ordinary alkaline batteries (also known as primary batteries).  However, Daniels Training Services provides a thorough and carefully documented explanation of the status of primary batteries.

"Dry cell alkaline batteries (D, C, AA, AAA, 6 volt, & 9 volt are non-hazardous waste.  Therefore, (unless there is a state exclusion) you may be able to dispose of alkaline batteries in the trash the same as you do the trash from your front office, break rooms and other non-production areas. 

States Respond to EPA Recycling Requirements

Congress passed the Resouce Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) on October 21, 1976 to address the increasing problems the nation faced from our growing volume of municipal and industrial waste.  Federal law requires, with certain exceptions, used Ni-Cd and Pb batteries to be managed as Universal Waste (40 CFR Part 273).

The Universal Waste Rule prohibits handlers (e.g., contractors) from disposing of waste Ni-Cd and Pb batteries and further indicates that these batteries must be sent for recycling.

Certainly in the year 2013 there has been sufficient time for all 50 states to respond to the requirement to recycle and to put in place mechanisms at all levels from consumers through industrial environments for effecting recycling. 

Rob DeRosa:  "One of the problems with recycling of any sort (glass, battery, tv, computer monitor) is convenience. If the public thinks' it's going to be inconvenient, they won't recycle."  More than that is the existence of law at the state level.  Without a "rule" specifying behavior, many people / organizations will not take on additional work especially if costs are incurred. 

Call2Recycle (more about them later) provides a "Recycling Laws Map" which classifies all states into one of four categories on how they mandate handling spent batteries. While this map may not be up-to-date, it does give a sense of how the states are responding to the EPA guidelines.

# States
 No laws on handling battery waste
18 states
including MA
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Law for Single Chemistry 19 states
Small lead acid batteries
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Law for Multiple Chemistries
11 states Nickel cadmium & lead acid.

New York
Add Nickel Metal Hydride and Lithium Ion
Battery disposal requirements for all Chemistries California
Same as NY plus single use non-rechargeable batteries

Recycling Laws Map Rechargeable Battery Recycling Laws
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Laws
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Laws Rechargeable Battery Recycling Laws

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Dept of Environmental Protection (DEP) website discusses the management options associated with each type of battery but does not appear to represent the information as "law," just recommendations.

Mass DEP organizes batteries into four categories:

Alkaline batteries (AAA,AA,C,D and 9 volt)  are made with no added mercury and are not considered hazardous. Dispose in the trash
Nickel-cadmium batteries contain cadmium, a metal that is toxic to humans when inhaled or ingested Do NOT dispose of in the trash. Take to a retail collection location or a municipal recycling center that accepts rechargeable batteries.
Button batteries contain mercury Do NOT dispose of in the trash. Many stores selling watches or hearing aids will accept spent button batteries. If your trash is handled by a waste-to-energy facility, find out if they have a mercury waste collection program; or hold for HHW collection.
Lithium batteries contain lithium which is reactive with water and has caused serious fires. Hold for household hazardous waste collection day.

Call2Recycle Hazardous Battery Recycling

Call2Recycle(From their website):  http://www.call2recycle.org/

Call2Recycle® is the only free rechargeable battery and cellphone collection program in North America. Since 1996, Call2Recycle has diverted over 70 million pounds of rechargeable batteries from the solid waste stream and established a network of 30,000 public collection sites. Advancing green business practices and environmental sustainability, Call2Recycle is the most active voice promoting safe reclamation and recycling of rechargeable batteries and cellphones.

In adherence to the strictest and safest recycling standards, Call2Recycle has received the Responsible Recycling (R2) certification for the management of the collection and the distribution to processors for the recycling of batteries and cellphones. Call2Recycle is a 501(c)4 non-profit organization.

Call2Recycle (C2R) has established relationships with local retailers such as Radio Shack, Best Buy and Home Depot. Using "kits" provided by C2R, the retailer sets up a free battery recycle box and C2R provides free shipping when the retailer is ready to mail the batteries into a designated battery recycling site. At a larger level, C2R works with municipalities to assist them in recycling rechargeable batteries.

Call2Recycle is funded by product manufacturers across the globe committed to environmentally-sound recycling of rechargeable batteries and cellphones. These manufacturers place our recycling seal on their rechargeable products and batteries, informing users that they are recyclable.

You may find them referred to by their original name:  The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC).  There are currently over 400 collection sites in Massachusetts that are free to residents. Call 800-8-BATTERY for the nearest retail collection location.

The City of Boston Public Works Department

Public Works Superintendent, Rob DeRosa, who answers the phone "Waste Reduction," explained how HHWD (Household Hazardous Waste Day) works.  The City of Boston is not licensed to handle hazardous waste.  What the City can and does do is organize hazardous waste collection days, twice a year.  The dates for 2013 have not yet been announced.

The City contracts with Clean Harbors who is licensed to handle hazardous waste. If you attend one of the hazardous waste days and watch all the workers collecting paint, chemicals, batteries and whatnot from cars driving in, you will find the workers dressed in white hazmat suits.

What happens to the batteries?  According to a Call2Recycle spokesperson in their Atlanta office, Clean Harbors works with them to recycle the rechargeable batteries, shipping them to a Pennsylvania processing site.

The bottom-line: Think "Eco-Aware." 

Practice what the EPA preaches regarding household hazardous waste:  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Dispose.  Don't dispose unless you absolutely have to.  Recycle at the end of product life.  Reuse instead of disgarding.  Reduce the use so less energy needs to be spent on waste.

  • Do you own a battery charger?  If not, plan to purchase one.  Many excellent manufacturers offer a variety of designs.  Handled properly over their life time, rechargeable batteries are kinder to our environment.
  • Do you own power tools, flashlights, computers, watches, cell phones?  As an exercise, itemize how many different pieces of equipment you own that make use of rechargeable or hazardous waste batteries (buttons). 
  • Make sure you know in advance how to handle the batteries at the end of their life.  Do you have a plan for safely storing your batteries until hazardous waste day?  Or can you take them to one of the many Call2Recycle sites in the local area?
  • Plan to talk with family members and teach them how to safely recycle batteries
  • Finally, talk with your congress person about getting laws passed in Massachusetts that will bring our state up to the environmental maturity of states like California and New York. 

This is the only planet we've got.  Let's protect it starting now.

Posted: March 20, 2013     Nancy J Conrad

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