It’s hard to avoid the need for remote electricity these days, especially with all the gadgets crying out to us that we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. Batteries offer a convenience by allowing us that "plugged in" advantage without being attached to a cord. Once the juice (electricity) has been drained, then the question of responsible disposal presents itself. Of course, like most of the disposal challenges that surround us, AVOIDANCE is the hands-down most effective waste reducer.
There are options to avoid the need for the single use/disposable alkaline batteries (AAA-D). There are wind-up gadgets. The one I can whole-heartedly recommend is a hand-held wind-up flashlight by Freeplay. Years ago I tried the wind up portable radio and was not very impressed. The radios that have solar work great as long as the charge is not exhausted and the sun is out.
If you can’t avoid using batteries for some things, rechargeable batteries offer the best value for your wallet and the environment. When purchasing a new product, choose the one that has a rechargeable battery built for power tools, electric toothbrushes and cell phones, for example.
One rechargeable battery can replace up to 300 single-use alkaline batteries. In other words, the life of a rechargeable battery can be stretched to nearly 300 times before it is time to recycle it. Ashland Hardware, Radio Shack and Batteries Plus accept rechargeable batteries for free. Local options to recycle alkaline (disposable) batteries are less plentiful and we are fortunate that Ashland Hardware offers this service. We pay their cost for the service. They ship them to a battery recycling facility that charges $2.49 per pound and that’s what it will cost you. If you are in Medford, Batteries Plus charges $2 per pound for alkaline batteries.
If you prefer to box up your batteries and mail them to be recycled, consumer be aware. Especially when there is a fee, make sure the company you have chosen is indeed recycling responsibly and not simply taking your money and trashing the batteries or incinerating them.
In a more perfect world, our state would disallow the disposal of batteries in the landfill like our neighbors to the south. In Oregon we refer to most batteries as “universal waste” and California considers them “hazardous waste.” Don’t be confused by the semantics. If the heavy metals in corroding batteries threatens soil and water in one state, it is true in every other state regardless of how it is defined.
IF Oregon added battery recycling to its slowly growing list of Product Stewardship or Extended Producer Responsibility (products like electronics and paint) and made it unlawful to landfill these materials, it would be easier to recycle them. It would create a regional demand for more recycling facilities for batteries. It would also help to reduce soil and water pollution.
In order to manufacture batteries, valuable resources are extracted from the earth. Lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc, lithium and mercury are the main ingredients. Once the battery’s electricity has been depleted, the heavy metals remain. If the batteries are disposed in the landfill they will eventually corrode along with all the other materials in there. The liquid (called leachate) has to go somewhere.
At the Dry Creek Landfill (our regional landfill), this ooze is collected and sent to the waste water treatment plant. How much of the metals are removed is unclear and eventually that “treated” water is released into Bear Creek. This poses a risk to soil and water that we can avoid. Incinerating batteries creates toxic fumes and the recyclable resources left in the battery are lost.
There is more information on batteries at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) website under “batteries.”
Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a decade. You may reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot.