|Americans buy 3 billion household batteries a year
Batteries???? In the midst of an historic drought, with wildfires dotting the state, and an upsurge in Covid cases, why am I focusing on batteries?
I am not really a battery aficionado per se. Part of me wanted to write about owls or something else that is majestic, cute, or beautiful.
But the serious fact of the matter is that batteries post environmental and health risks. And they are easily capable of igniting a fire, which is the last thing we need right now. The risks are manageable if and only if we dispose of them properly.
What is a Battery?
If you are like me, your answer to this question is, “I am no expert but I know a battery when I see one.” If you want to take your understanding to the next level, here is a one sentence explanation of how batteries work: Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and nickel react with chemical electrolytes inside the battery to produce power.
Now let’s move on to some basics about household batteries. I will be covering car batteries in a separate post.
|Alkaline: These are the ones you probably grew up with. Some states let you throw them in the trash, but they are considered hazardous waste in California, and by law you have to dispose of them at a permitted hazardous household waste facility.
|Lithium: Batteries containing lithium are found in cellphones, laptops, and tablets. Lithium, also considered a heavy metal, is increasingly being used in AA and nine-volt batteries and in button cell and coin batteries. These are particularly dangerous if not disposed of properly.
|Button-cell: These batteries are found in watches and hearing aids. Coin batteries are similar to button batteries only thinner and larger in diameter. They often contain lithium as well as other heavy metals including mercury, silver, and cadmium. So dispose of them carefully…and please keep them away from little children. If ingested they are life threatening.
|Rechargeable: One in five batteries purchased in the US is rechargeable. There are various kinds, including cadmium (Ni-CD), nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH), lithium ion (Li-ion), and small-sealed lead acid (SS Lead Acid). No surprise that a substance whose name includes the words lead and acid is dangerous. All these batteries must be taken to a permitted hazardous waste facility.
Why Are Batteries Considered Hazardous?
The EPA defines hazardous waste as any substance with one or more of these characteristics:
- IGNITABILITY – Liquids or solids that are flammable or combustible
- CORROSIVITY – Highly reactive substances that cause rust, corrosion, and obvious damage to living tissue; acids and bases are common corrosive materials
- REACTIVITY – Substances that, when mixed, create toxic, unstable, or explosive reactions
- TOXICITY – Poisonous materials
Chock full of heavy metals, batteries are both reactive and toxic. If batteries end up in a landfill, the heavy metals can leach out into the surrounding soil and groundwater. If the batteries are incinerated, the heavy metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process.
If you are interested in knowing more about the complex and extremely serious effects of heavy metals on human health, take a look at this review article.
Batteries are also ignitable. In California, about 65% of the fires reported in waste facilities in 2017 were said to be caused by lithium batteries. Fires have also occurred at landfills and even in waste collection trucks.
Exploded batteries from e-cigarettes
The lithium batteries in e-cigarettes have been particularly problematic. Here in the US more than 2000 vapers were sent to the hospital with burn injuries between 2015 and 2017 following a battery explosion.
Even when lithium-ion batteries can no longer power a device, they retain a residual charge (i.e., they aren’t dead). If their terminals come into contact with other metals, they can create a spark, which is of course extremely dangerous. When you dispose of nine-volt batteries you should put a piece of tape over both terminals to prevent accidental ignition.
What Happens When Batteries are Reprocessed?
The batteries are sorted and then sent to a processing facility. Batteries containing useful heavy metals are processed at high temperatures in thermal vacuum vaporization units, where the metals are evaporated and condensed.
The recovered materials are used to make new goods. For example, the nickel in nickel-metal hydride batteries is recovered to make steel. It’s a long and costly process.
How are We Doing on Disposing of Batteries?
Quantifying the degree of battery disposal is a challenge, in part because there are many permitted location sites including the battery manufacturers.
According to Kimberly Scheibly, former Director of Compliance & Customer Relations at Marin Sanitary Service, “Past waste characterization studies from Marin show a small percentage of household hazardous waste in the waste stream; however, there really should be none.”
A national analysis of battery collection is conducted every year by Call2Recycle, the country’s largest consumer battery stewardship organization. They obtain data on household battery recycling and then rank the states in terms of amount of collected batteries compared with the state population. For the past couple of years California has come in fifth.
What enables a state to get a high ranking? According to Call2Recycle, top-ranked states are more likely to have municipal governments that actively lead disposal efforts. Municipal governments in lower ranked states do not have the necessary infrastructure and resources to support appropriate disposal, often leaving this important activity to retailers.
Challenges for the Future
Battery disposal has become more complex than it was in the days where most of them were alkaline batteries that we put in our flashlights or in a child’s toy. We no longer expect to remove or replace the batteries in our smart phones, tablets, readers and other devices. When we dispose of these devices along with their batteries, it is more difficult to ensure the separate recycling of those batteries.
The changing face of retail is another factor that is making it harder to recover batteries. Collection efforts have traditionally depended on returning the batteries to local stores. With the rise of internet shopping, many stores have closed or greatly reduced their overall footprint. There isn’t a clear mechanism to support return to retail when the retailer is an internet site.
Exciting Progress in California
In California, there is good news on the horizon. The State Legislature is poised to pass a bill (SB289) to require producers of batteries and product-embedded batteries to develop, finance, and implement a program to recover and reprocess their products. Read more here to find out how you can support passage of this bill.
What You Can Do
The most important thing to remember is never to dispose of your batteries in curbside containers. If possible, take all your dead batteries to the Marin Hazardous Household Waste Facility in San Rafael. They take a lot more than batteries, too, so load up your car with all your old paint, electronics, motor oil, and anything else that is flammable and poisonous. It’s free for Marin residents, so bring some ID. If you have any questions, check out their informative and easy-to-navigate website.
If the Waste Facility location is not convenient for you, you can take your batteries to other permitted drop-off points including fire stations, city offices and police stations, and any number of hardware and grocery stores. Check out this article about locations in Marin and Sonoma, or go to the website for the Battery & Bulb Take Back Program. This program allows Marin residents to dispose of household batteries, fluorescent lamps, and fluorescent tubes by dropping them off at retail locations. No charge!
And again, please keep those batteries out of your curbside containers. They must be disposed of in permitted hazardous household waste locations, not in your curbside recycling or waste container.
|United Market in Marin accepts dead batteries
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook!
Congratulations, now you know a lot about batteries! We can switch it up next time. How about this for the upcoming installment: Baby Owls vs. Baby Squirrels: Which are Cuter?
This week I would especially like to thank Laura Myers for her generous donation to support dissemination of the Notebook on social media! Kimberly Scheibly, Hilda Borko and Guy Ashcraft provided helpful comments on this post. And thanks also to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image for the Notebook banner. Check out their award-winning book or visit their website to see more.