Thursday, December 08, 2005

Batteries and the Environment

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

You probably don’t give it much thought, but I bet you’re surrounded by batteries.

I’ve got one in the watch on my arm, and there’s one in the cell phone in my pocket. The computer has one to keep time when it’s shut down. My radio takes six of the big D cells to work when the power goes out, and there are at least ten batteries of various sizes in assorted flashlights around our house. There are 9-volts in the smoke detectors, and rechargeables in the cordless phones and power tools. And let me not even mention the batteries we have in toys.

There are old batteries in a jar waiting to be recycled, and new batteries in a drawer waiting to be used.

I enjoy the convenience of batteries. But like many other people, I am also concerned with the environmental consequences of using them. So this week, I did a little digging on that question. Here’s what I found.

Disposable household alkaline batteries, the ones we use most, have changed greatly for the better over the past twenty years. The biggest concern with earlier generations of these batteries was the mercury they contained, which could make its way into the environment if they were incinerated or wound up in a landfill. In response to public concern and subsequent legislation, manufacturers have reduced the use of mercury in disposable alkaline batteries by ninety-eight percent.

If you’ve ever wondered what good it does to express your concern about the environmental impact of consumer products, just take a look at the way some batteries are now marketed. I’ve got double A’s that boast “0% mercury and cadmium added” right on the side.

Although today’s alkaline batteries are far less harmful in landfills than their predecessors, it’s still preferable to recycle them when that’s possible. Unfortunately the only opportunity most of us have for recycling disposable alkalines is the occasional EPA hazardous waste collection day.

An even better option, from an environmental perspective, which also turns out to be cheaper in the long run, is to invest in rechargeable batteries to replace alkalines for household use.

In contrast to alkaline batteries, the Nickel-Cadmium, or ni-cad batteries in cordless phones and power tools are still full of materials that should never wind up in an incinerator or landfill. But thanks to the federal law known as the Battery Act of 1996, it is much more convenient to recycle them than it used to be. The Battery Act requires that ni-cad batteries be easily removable from the devices they power, and it also prompted manufacturers to set up a system for recycling ni-cad batteries.

When rechargeable ni-cad batteries die, it’s important not to throw them away, but rather to take them back to the store where they came from for recycling.

The same rule also applies for the little button type batteries in our lives, the ones in watches, hearing aids, and calculators, for example. These batteries ought to be recyclable through the businesses that sell them. When that’s not the case, it’s worth keeping them for an EPA hazardous waste collection day.

Is there life beyond replaceable batteries? It seems so, at least if you’re willing to do a little winding. I recently came across an ad for flashlight that’s charged by a hand crank. How well it works I don’t know yet. But if someone from my family is listening, and feels inclined to get me a gift anytime soon, I’ll be sure to report back.