Monday, July 15, 2024

No Rest for the Dead…Battery

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No Rest for the Dead...Battery

What to do with dead batteries? Eco-conscious consumers want to recycle whenever possible. And after 21 years even the Energizer Bunny is marching to a new beat.

What to do with dead batteries? Eco-conscious consumers want to recycle whenever possible. And after 21 years even the Energizer Bunny is marching to a new beat.

In an effort to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers, Energizer changed its slogan from “Keep Going” to “now that’s positivenergy.” The new marketing campaign includes sizable donations to ecological and tree planting organizations.

Yet, while more trees are always welcome, the unfortunate fact is that over 95 percent (over 635 million in 2009) of all single-use consumer batteries sold in Canada end up in landfills. And with our insatiable hunger for portable gadgets, sales are expected to increase to nearly 750 million by 2015.

The environmental impact of throwing dead batteries into the trash depends on the battery type, as some are more toxic than others. However, there is no such thing as a completely “green” battery.

Why recycle?

As batteries degrade in landfills, various chemicals and heavy metals can leak into our topsoil and groundwater. Eventually, these toxins can end up in our ecosystems and our bodies. In addition, toxins are released into the air when batteries are burned in municipal waste incinerators. One such toxin, the heavy metal cadmium, a known carcinogen found in some rechargeable batteries, easily accumulates in fruits and vegetables, or can be inhaled and may cause severe health problems, such as nervous system damage.

Recycling also recovers metals that would otherwise be mined from the earth and is a proven way to combat global warming. For example, car batteries—a recycling success story—have the highest recycling rate at over 95 percent in the US between 2004 and 2008. With secondary lead, plastic, and sulphuric acid being used instead of virgin resources, new car batteries contain up to 80 percent recycled materials.

Environment Canada suspects a similar recycle rate and reports that the resulting energy savings translated to over 250,550 tonnes of CO2 in 2007. If we recycled a mere 50 percent of consumer batteries, we could save up to 18,772 tonnes (the equivalent of taking 2,808 SUVs off the road for a year).

Beating the battery blues

The danger of discarding batteries in our landfills is not a new concern, despite the recent green movement giving it some exposure. Private industry and the government have been working together for over 15 years to tackle the issue.

In 1994 a consortium of rechargeable battery and product manufacturers formed the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) to provide free rechargeable battery recycling to North American consumers. Any business that sells batteries can enrol as a collection centre free of charge.

In 1996 the US passed legislation to phase out mercury from single-use alkaline batteries. As we do not manufacture our own batteries in Canada, we rely on imports from the US. Unfortunately, counterfeit batteries from China are still a problem, as they do contain mercury and have even been known to explode (so exercise caution when purchasing batteries).

In recent years there has been a push from grassroots environmental organizations to educate the public and try to improve the battery recycling rate. For instance, the nonprofit EcoWatch Canada organizes competitions among schools to see who can recycle the most batteries.

This sort of community involve-ment is encouraging, especially considering that recycling batteries is not a simple matter of tossing them into the blue bin on the curb. It takes a bit more effort to collect and drop off spent batteries. The ultimate payoff, however, is not just a longer gadget life—it’s a longer life for our ecosystem.

Battery breakdown

Using rechargeable batteries is the greener way to go, as they can be used hundreds of times before they die, but as they are more toxic than single-use batteries, recycling is a must. Here is a breakdown of the different consumer battery types, including why and how to recycle them.

Battery type Description Used in Materials recovered from recycling Where/how to recycle
alkaline manganese (ZnMnO2) the most common single-use battery you can buy toys, flashlights, clocks, radios, smoke alarms, remote controls steel and zinc In Manitoba and BC, search for drop-off locations at For other provinces search at
lithium ion (Li-ion) an expensive but newer type of rechargeable battery cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, camcorders, toothbrushes, electric cars precious metals Likely the whole electronic device will be recycled as the battery is often integrated into the product. Check if the manufacturer has a take-back program, or check the local recycling depot. To recycle just the battery, search
nickel cadmium (NiCd) a cheap, long-lasting rechargeable battery, but an environmental hazard power tools, cordless phones, cameras, two-way radios keeps the toxic heavy metal cadmium out of the environment and recovers precious metals nickel, iron, and zinc Search for a drop-off location.
silver oxide (ZnAgO2) a small button type, also toxic for the environment calculators, hearing aids, wristwatches, medical equipment, greeting cards keeps mercury out of our ecosystem In most cases, these batteries can be replaced by a professional or jeweller. If not, check with the local household hazardous waste program.

Long live the rechargeable battery

The following tips will help to extend the life of rechargeable batteries.

  • Follow manufacturer charging guidelines.
  • Never try to charge a fully charged battery—this shortens battery life.
  • Remove charged batteries from charger; leaving them in will shorten battery life.

Green portable power

Here are a few technological advancements in portable power that create less harm to the environment.

  • Zinc air batteries use zinc and oxygen to generate a charge. They are small enough to replace harmful mercury-based silver-oxide batteries.
  • Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries use a hydrogen-absorbing alloy instead of toxic cadmium. For maximum green points buy brands pre-charged with solar power.
  • No batteries required? A new technology called wireless electricity (WiTricity) can beam power safely to devices via magnetic fields.
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