Think about how many things in your house use ordinary batteries. Flashlights, electric shavers, cameras, portable alarm clocks…the list goes on and on. Any electric device that’s portable uses batteries—AA, AAA, C-cells, D-cells, lithium, and cadmium batteries are the most common. They’re supposed to be rechargeable, but they won’t last forever—and most of those batteries wind up in the trash eventually. From there, they go to the landfill.
The problem with this is that batteries contain heavy metals and other pollutants that are toxic to the environment. These metals include mercury, nickel cadmium, alkaline, lead acid, and nickel metal hydride. When left to decay in a landfill, these contents can leach out and pollute groundwater. When incinerated, they release harmful gases into the air. The acids and metals inside a battery are poisonous to people and animals: they can cause irritation and even acid burns upon exposure.
Our government is aware of the problem, and has been trying to fix it for decades. Battery manufacturers began reducing the amount of mercury in their products in 1984, and some of today’s household batteries contain up to 97% less mercury than they once did. However, compliance hasn’t been perfect. The Battery Act of 1996 was signed into law to address companies putting more mercury in batteries than they should under laws aimed at reducing mercury pollution. The act was meant to phase out mercury use in batteries altogether, as well as introduce a way for the public to recycle their old batteries. In addition, California recently made it illegal to throw batteries in the trash—and it’s possible that other states will eventually follow suit.
There are many different types of batteries, and some are more toxic than others. Following is a breakdown of different types of batteries, and their relative toxicity levels.
Household batteries. Typical household batteries (Energizer, Duracell, and the like) used to contain a great deal more mercury than they do now. After the Battery Act of 1996, these batteries have been re-designed to be much less toxic than they were. Today, these are made with lithium, alkaline, and zinc, along with other materials that are less harmful than mercury. Because many alkaline batteries have so little (or no) mercury, many bans on accepting them at landfills have been lifted. However, recycling them is still better for the environment—they don’t break down quickly in a landfill, and any waste kept out of landfills is a win for the environment. If you want to recycle your old household batteries, check this website for more information on what’s available in your area: www.earth911.org.
Rechargeable batteries. Although the Battery Act has lowered the amount of mercury in these batteries, they still contain cadmium, a highly toxic substance. Because of this, rechargeable batteries are made of nickel-cadmium, and are defined as hazardous waste—so they should never be thrown in the trash. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to recycle these batteries. The recycling program the Battery Act of 1996 set up is called the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC). The RBRC recycles rechargeable batteries, lithium-ion batteries, and small sealed-lead batteries. You can drop off your batteries at collection points found at Home Depot, Target, Wal-Mart, and other retailers all over the country.
Button batteries. These are tiny batteries used in small devices such as hearing aids. They contain a fair share of mercury, as well as other toxic chemicals, and should be recycled. The bad news is that the RBRC doesn’t take button batteries, so check with Earth911 (www.earth911.org) to check out the recycling options in your area.
Car batteries. Many car batteries are lead-acid, and the RBRC won’t take them because they’re over the size limit. The good news is that car batteries are one of the most often recycled types. Most people go to a service center to replace a battery, and the center recycles old batteries for customers. For those who replace a battery on their own, you should check with the store where you buy your new battery to see if they’ll take your old one for recycling.
Laptop batteries. These are usually lithium-ion batteries that aren’t considered overly harmful to the environment. However, some laptop batteries do contain toxic metals, and parts of these batteries can be recycled. Many retailers that sell laptops and laptop batteries will also take old batteries for recycling. To find out where you can drop off your laptop battery, check out the RBRC’s drop-off locator: call2recycle.org/locator/.
Batteries can cause great harm to the environment when not disposed of properly—and after the RBRC, it’s easier than most people realize to recycle old batteries. Taking your old rechargeables to a drop-off center is a positive thing you can do for the environment. If everyone in America recycled their batteries instead of throwing them away, we’d be living in a cleaner, healthier country.