After typing out my last post about batteries, and feeling extraordinarily accomplished, I decided to Google ‘battery disposal.’ I was on the hunt for some facts for my dedicated readers about why it is so bad to put your batteries in the landfill. Surely there are stats on how batteries are contaminating our water and killing our children.
Unfortunately it wasn’t so easy. Writing this, I feel that my poor skull fractured from the unending hunt for ‘The Truth’ about battery disposal… and this is only my first foray into being serious about trash. After a considerable amount of confusion, I realized that there are different KINDS of batteries, each with very different implications for their disposal. Overall batteries fit into two major categories:
- Lead-acid batteries: These are batteries typically found in cars, but they are also in lots of other things, like tractors, golf carts, and (surprisingly) cell phones.
- Dry cell batteries: these batteries power all sorts of smaller home devices, flashlights, hearing aids, drills, remote controls and can be single-use or rechargeable. This category includes, among others, alkaline batteries.
The batteries jangling in my pocket turned out to be single-use alkaline batteries (these include AA, AAA, 9V, etc). Though just a subset of the dry cell battery family, such batteries account for 75% of single-use batteries used, with approximately 4 billion sold in the US each year. At an average weight of 33 grams, we are talking about over 145,000 tons of stuff we have to deal with each year (though still <1% of all municipal solid waste we create per year).
When I finally figured out what to punch into Google (ie – disposal of single-use alkaline batteries), I found something that really surprised me: most people don’t think throwing these batteries into the landfill kills babies. It turns out there is a great deal of controversy regarding how harmful single-use alkalines are. The EPA has NOT listed these batteries as hazardous waste, and therefore permits throwing single-use alkaline batteries out with household trash – destining them either for landfills or incinerators.
The de-classification of primary alkaline batteries as hazardous waste dates back to the 1996 “Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act.” This document states that alkaline batteries cannot have “a mercury content that was intentionally introduced (as distinguished from mercury that may be incidentally present in other materials)” (42 USC 14332). The Duracell website claims that in 1993 they removed all ‘added mercury’ from batteries. From what I can read, single-use alkalines have about 10% of the mercury content that they had prior to 1996… but this still implies the batteries contain some mercury (however trace). Just how much is this? It also suggests that other metals in these batteries (manganese, nickel, zinc) are safe to dispose of and do not pose a threat to the environment. But I wonder – is there a safety threshold on this? I’ve also read some (far-out and unreliable) blogs who claim that the main reason recycling isn’t required for these batteries has to do with money – it just isn’t profitable to recover any of the metals present in alkaline batteries.
Beyond disreputable blogs, there are others who also don’t seem totally convinced that single-use alkalines are innocuous. California is the only state in the US that has banned single-use alkaline batteries from entering the municipal solid waste stream. The European Union has also banned this.
Why the controversy? This leaves me with many more questions than I originally had… Money? Mercury? Do I really have to go to California to figure this out?