Toxic battery waste generates a surge of recycling efforts.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Spring is the prime season for all things bunny. Not only is it mating season for the notoriously fertile critters, but it’s also the Easter Bunny’s moment of glory. Less visible is the Energizer Bunny, America’s god of batteries, who powers the nation’s radios, portable drills, talking dolls, vibrators—virtually everything electronic that isn’t plugged in. Unfortunately, even the highest-quality batteries don’t “keep going and going and going,” as the drum-banging corporate mascot promises. What does one do when the toxic little rods poop out?
This month, the coupling of Earth Day and American Automobile Association’s Great Battery Roundup gently reminds us of our responsibility to prevent battery pollution. When we throw used batteries in the trash they end up at the landfill, where their toxic metals leak into the soil and water, contaminating the environment and poisoning people. The related health effects range from headaches to cancer, with all kinds of disorders in between.
“It’s not something you want a little baby crawling around.”
According to a state report, Californians bought more than a half billion batteries in 2001 but only recycled one half of 1 percent of them. In response to what regulators saw as a mounting hazardous waste problem, the California Universal Waste Rule banned the disposal of alkaline batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and pesticides in household trash beginning in February 2006.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in battery collection since that law went into effect,” says Monterey Regional Waste Management District’s Jeff Lindenthal. The facility collected an average of 469 pounds of batteries per month in the 2005-06 fiscal year, and nearly double that rate in the first nine months of the 2006-07 fiscal year, Lindenthal says. MRWMD sends its batteries to a certified battery recycling company in Hayward, which dismantles them and recycles or safely disposes of their parts.
Unlike Santa Cruz County residents, Monterey County residents are not allowed to put alkaline batteries (sealed in a plastic bag) in our curbside recycling bins. That would require an amendment to cities’ hauling service agreements, and so far no local municipalities have sprung for it, Lindenthal says. But the city of Monterey has taken proactive steps to make disposal easier, setting up seven battery drop-off locations across town. MRWMD and Salinas’ Crazy Horse Landfill also accept used batteries six days a week. (See sidebar, page 12, for battery drop-off times and locations.)
Rechargeable battery users might feel just a tad superior at this point. But even rechargeables are, contrary to popular belief, mortal. While most can be re-juiced for years, they do eventually die—and most contain the heavy metals lead or cadmium, which are more toxic to tender living things than the metals in their alkaline cousins.
The federal Battery Act of 1996 requires the recycling or proper disposal of all nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) and small sealed lead-acid (SSLA) rechargeable batteries, with violations carrying fines of up to $10,000. The feds also recommend keeping nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) and lithium ion rechargeables out of landfills. But luckily, getting rid of them is as easy as buying them: By law, all stores that sell rechargeable batteries—including those that power laptops and cell phones—are required to take the used ones back. The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, an industry nonprofit, ships the rechargeables to a cadmium recovery facility in Pennsylvania, where the metals are separated and recycled.
But those efforts don’t deal with the biggest, leakiest, nastiest batteries of all: those that power our vehicles. AAA claims that some 97 percent of car batteries are already recycled; both auto service shops and auto part retailers are required to pass their customers’ old batteries on to certified recycling facilities. Car battery recycling keeps plastic, lead and sulfuric acid out of landfills and reduces the need to produce more of the environmentally harsh raw materials.
Still, AAA is concerned about the remaining 3 percent of car batteries that end up in regular landfills—or in some forgotten corner on private property. “[Car batteries] are made up of really toxic substances, not something you want a little baby crawling around in the garage and finding,” AAA spokeswoman Jenny Mack says.
And so, from April 11-22, the regional AAA chapter is sponsoring its sixth annual Great Battery Roundup, during which people can drop off their spent car batteries at any of a number of local businesses. The recycling company pays $1.50 for every used car battery, and AAA adds $0.50 in order to donate $2 per battery to a variety of environmental nonprofits. In the last five years, the association has collected just under 33,000 batteries, generating more than $65,000 in donations, Mack says.
Locally, proceeds go to CSU-Monterey Bay’s Return of the Natives, which works to involve students in countywide habitat restoration projects—making our local environment a more welcoming place for people and bunnies alike.