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Recycle Your Batteries

February 28, 2012

flickr - Laura MC

Ever feel daunted by recycling? You keep meaning to recycle batteries but never get around to it? The good news is that most of us today are recycling paper and plastic — and most people can recycle more, too.

Like almost everything else, batteries can be recycled. Batteries contain the toxic chemicals cadmium, lead and cobalt. If improperly disposed of, these chemicals could ultimately enter our bodies. While there is no federal law that says consumers must recycle batteries, a growing number of states do have laws banning batteries from landfills.

When a battery is thrown in the trash, it ends up in a landfill where it slowly breaks down over an unknown period of years while releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. But when a battery is recycled, it is broken down to its original elements in a safe environment and then redistributed back to the manufacturers to create new batteries. 

Throwing away batteries can lead to severe and possibly irreversible effects. Batteries dumped into landfills can get into surrounding fresh water sources and contaminate the topsoil. For example, batteries contain potassium hydroxide, which is also used in many fertilizers, and has been proven to cause severe respiratory, eye, and skin damage, threatening generations to come. These chemicals may be even worse for the environment than previously imagined. To avoid having to address this potentially catastrophic problem in the future, recycling is a wise solution. On a positive note, over the years the amount of harsh chemicals in batteries has been replaced with more sustainable and efficient chemicals. This move in the right direction has created hope for the future of the battery recycling movement.

Realizing the potential harm that batteries pose to the environment, the EPA has been charged with doing something about it. In 1996, Congress passed the “Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act.” This act has nearly eliminated the use of mercury in alkaline batteries. But, while most batteries do not contain mercury, they are still made with toxic metals that interact with each other to create electrical energy — and these shouldn’t be thrown away.

What can I do?

The best choice? Well, ideally our rechargeable batteries would last longer, and we’d never have to throw them out. But eventually everything will wear out, and recycling is the way to go. Battery recycling isn’t perfect — for example, last week a battery recycling plant was punished for possibly exposing children to lead pollution — but it’s better than throwing them out!

If you’ve got rechargeable batteries, including old cell phones, look at Call2Recycle for free recycling. Founded in 1996, this non-profit organization claims to have handled over 60 million pounds of rechargeable batteries. It’s funded by the battery production industry, in an effort to reduce the waste they’re causing. By the end of 2011, Call2Recycle had more than 60,000 recycling sites across the United States.  Click to find one, or go to a major retailer like Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Staples. The result from the recycling of batteries leads to the direct creation of new batteries.

For all other batteries, your local municipality probably has a recycling program. Check out Earth911 to look up a site near you! Most towns across the country provide battery recycling at their local trash and recycling centers. There are also a number of recycle-by-mail companies that will recycle large quantities of batteries for a small fee.

Whatever you do, please do your best to get in the habit of recycling your batteries.

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