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Should Batteries Be Tossed or Recycled?

Newer Batteries Contain Less Mercury Than Older Models

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full frame image of the tops of batteries
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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that it is now safe to throw away common household batteries and that only rechargeable batteries can now be recycled. Is this true? Doug Reynolds, Martinsville, IN

Today’s common household batteries—those ubiquitous AAs, AAAs, Cs, Ds and 9-volts from Duracell, Energizer and others—are not thought to pose as great a threat to properly equipped modern landfills as they used to because they contain much less mercury than their predecessors. As a result, most municipalities now recommend simply throwing such batteries away with your trash.

Battery Disposal or Recycling?
Nevertheless, environmentally concerned consumers might feel better recycling such batteries anyway, as they still do contain trace amounts of mercury and other potentially toxic stuff. Some municipalities will accept these batteries (as well as older, more toxic ones) at household hazardous waste facilities, from which they will most likely be sent elsewhere to be processed and recycled as components in new batteries.

How to Recycle Batteries
Other options abound, such as the mail-order service, Battery Solutions, which will recycle your spent batteries at a cost of 85 cents per pound. To find a company near you where you can drop off your old batteries for recycling, check out the comprehensive national database at the Earth911.org website. Meanwhile, the national chain, Batteries Plus, is happy to take back disposable batteries for recycling at any of its 255 retail stores coast-to-coast.

Older Batteries Should Always Be Recycled
Consumers should note that any old batteries they may find buried in their closets that were made before 1997—when Congress mandated a widespread mercury phase-out in batteries of all types—should most surely be recycled and not discarded with the trash, as they may contain as much as 10 times the mercury of newer versions.

The Problem of Rechargeable Batteries
Perhaps of greater concern nowadays is what’s happening to spent rechargeable batteries from cell phones, MP3 players and laptops. Such items contain potentially toxic heavy metals sealed up inside, and if thrown out with the regular garbage can jeopardize the environmental integrity of both landfills and incinerator emissions. Luckily, the battery industry sponsors the operations of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which facilitates the collection of used rechargeable batteries collected in an industry-wide “take back” program for recycling.

Additional Battery Recycling Options
Consumers can help by limiting their electronics purchases to items that carry the RBRC logo on their packaging. Furthermore, they can find out where to drop off old rechargeable batteries (and even old cell phones) by calling RBRC’s hotline at 1-800-8BATTERY or by visiting the online drop location finder at RBRC.org. Also, most Radio Shack stores will take back rechargeable batteries and deliver them to RBRC free-of-charge. RBRC then processes the batteries via a thermal recovery technology that reclaims metals such as nickel, iron, cadmium, lead and cobalt, repurposing them for use in new batteries.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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