Community Waste Prevention Toolkit: Battery Fact Sheet
Reduce, Recharge, Recycle!
Preventing Waste from Batteries
Batteries are an integral part of modern life, affecting the way we work, play, communicate, and travel. They are used to power devices large and small, from watches, pagers, and cell phones to clocks and household appliances to computers, power tools, and vehicles. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, more than three billion industrial and household batteries were sold in the US in 1998, and our consumption of batteries is expected to increase by 5.8 percent annually through 2002.(1)
This widespread use of batteries takes a toll on the environment. Americans throw out approximately 179,000 tons of batteries a year,(2) of which about 14,000 tons are rechargeables.(3) Because batteries disposed of in municipal landfills and trash incinerators can disperse significant amounts of heavy metals and other toxic substances into the air and water, battery waste prevention and recycling strategies are essential.
This fact sheet provides an overview of the most common types of consumer batteries and strategies for environmentally preferable battery purchasing and recycling.
Why Reduce Battery Waste?
Battery Waste Prevention Strategies
Battery Chemistry: Finding the Perfect Match
– Single-Use Batteries
– Rechargeable Batteries
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (RBRC)
Battery Recycling in the US
Why Reduce Battery Waste?
All batteries contain toxic substances, but certain battery chemistries are considered more dangerous when mixed in with regular trash. The primary concern has centered on batteries that contain mercury, cadmium, or lead, which are on the EPA’s list of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic chemicals (PBTs) and are targeted as priority substances for waste minimization. According to an EPA fact sheet, batteries “account for a disproportionate amount of the toxic heavy metals contained in municipal solid waste,” even though they make up less than 1 percent of that waste.(4) Single-use alkaline batteries contain fewer toxic chemicals than rechargeable batteries, but there are many more of them in the waste stream.
While battery manufacturers have largely moved away from batteries containing mercury — in response to several state laws and the federal Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996, which restricts the amount of mercury in batteries sold in the US — cadmium and lead are still widely used in rechargeable batteries sold today. Nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) and lead-acid batteries have been targeted for elimination under an anticipated European Union directive, and are banned from solid waste disposal facilities in several states (see Battery Recycling in the US).
Battery Waste Prevention Strategies
The following strategies are designed primarily to help government agencies, businesses, and institutions such as schools and hospitals reduce the quantity and toxicity of the battery waste they generate. Some of them may be useful to individual consumers as well.
1. Buy products that eliminate or minimize batteries.
Consider buying electric clocks and power tools, solar-powered calculators, and other products not powered by batteries. Look for innovative products now emerging on the market such as fuel cell-powered electronic equipment. While solar- and fuel cell-powered devices may have some toxic components, they are replaced far less frequently than batteries and so reduce both the quantity and toxicity of waste. According to H Power, a fuel cell manufacturer based in New Jersey, mobile fuel cell systems replace or supplement batteries in laptop computers, golf carts, and other electronic products. For more information, see http://www.plugpower.com/products/
2. If you must buy a battery-powered device, avoid unnecessary “bells and whistles.”
New features on electronic products, such as a color screen on a personal digital assistant (PDA) or a combination cell phone and MP3 player, generally require additional power. Choose products that give you only the features you need. Do not necessarily look for older technology, since improvements in processing chips often reduce the power needed in new units. A reduction in battery use can save you money, so ask vendors about a product’s power requirements, check the product literature, and factor this into your purchase decision.
3. Choose rechargeables over single-use batteries for all appropriate applications.
Rechargeable batteries are considered environmentally preferable because they reduce the total number of batteries manufactured and entering the waste stream. Most battery-operated equipment can accept rechargeable batteries. Purchase nonrechargeable batteries only when required for a specific use (such as a smoke detector). When the product label does not specify a particular battery type, rechargeables can generally be used. While rechargeable batteries cost more initially than single-use batteries (and require the purchase of a compatible charger if you do not already own one), a single rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) or Ni-Cd battery can replace up to 1000 single-use alkaline batteries over its lifetime.
In July 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution (written with technical support from INFORM) urging city and county departments to purchase and use rechargeable batteries, and to participate in battery recycling programs. It “urges that any City department requesting purchase of nonrechargeable batteries shall certify that rechargeable batteries or products powered by rechargeable batteries are unavailable to meet the contract requirements.”(5)
4. When buying battery-operated products, specify brands that use rechargeables.
Do not automatically discriminate against products that include rechargeable batteries simply because they have a higher initial cost. Despite the up-front costs of batteries (and, possibly, a recharging unit), products that use rechargeable batteries can often save you money in the long run.
- Use life-cycle cost analysis to find batteries and battery-operated products with the best overall value.
- If possible, purchase products that use standard-sized rechargeables rather than product-specific batteries. This will allow you to use one set of rechargeables interchangeably in several devices, rather than buying special batteries and charging equipment for different items.
- Make sure equipment does not preclude the use of rechargeable batteries, and try to avoid products that can run on either single-use batteries or rechargeables. While many new products have rechargeable battery packs included, single-use standard batteries can often power these products as well. Users of products that can be powered by either type are more likely to opt for nonrechargeables.
5. When buying battery-operated products, specify ones in which the batteries are labeled and easily removable.
This is mandatory for batteries that contain lead, cadmium, or mercury, but not for other battery chemistries. Labeled and removable batteries facilitate recycling and save money by enabling you to install a new battery rather than replace the entire product.
6. Consider buying two sets of rechargeable standard-sized batteries and a recharging unit when you need uninterrupted power.
A battery recharging unit costs about the same as an extension cord. If you buy two sets of rechargeables, one can be used to power the device while the other is being recharged. When purchasing a battery charger for standard-size batteries, choose one with packaging that states it can recharge Ni-MHs and rechargeable alkalines as well as Ni-Cds.
7. When buying batteries and battery-powered products, choose brands with the longest life that meets your performance needs.
You get what you pay for when you buy batteries. Because they last longer, more expensive rechargeable battery types (e.g., nickel-metal hydrides and lithium-ions) are more economical in the long run than rechargeable alkalines or nickel-cadmiums. Also look for batteries that last longer between charges. (The February 2001 issue of Consumer Reports rates a number of new cell phone models on the basis of several criteria, including battery lifetime; see http://www.consumerreports.org.) If you must purchase single-use batteries, consider the long-life “premium” varieties designed to last longer than standard alkalines in high-drain items such as digital cameras, photo flashes, and PDAs. For example, single-use lithium batteries last five times longer than standard alkalines at a competitive life-cycle cost.(6)
8. Purchase battery chargers that can recharge several types of rechargeables.
Different rechargeable battery chemistries may require different types of chargers. Make sure the recharging unit you buy is designed for the battery type you need.(7) And specify chargers that can handle more than Ni-Cds. If you have an old charger, you may need to upgrade it with one that is more versatile. Also, consider using a solar-powered recharger.
9. Educate other government agencies about the financial and environmental advantages of using rechargeables.
Also make sure employees know how to procure, use, recharge, and recycle rechargeables properly. Matching the battery to the equipment can dramatically reduce waste.
10. Take care to maintain your batteries.
As with all products, appropriate care and maintenance reduce the need for battery replacement.
- When a product does not need a source of continuous power, prevent batteries from being drained by removing them when not in use.
- Batteries should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from heat. They should not be stored in the refrigerator.
- Do not mix new batteries with old ones; one spent battery can prevent a device from working even if the other batteries are new.
- Read the recharger instructions carefully when recharging a new battery. Some rechargeable batteries (especially Ni-Cds) should be completely drained before recharging to avoid excessive power losses.
11. Consider reusing batteries in low-drain applications.
According to an article in the New York Times, “Just because a battery can no longer supply the power pulses required by digital cameras and flash attachments doesn’t mean it’s dead. Once removed from such high-drain devices, a battery still has plenty of juice for low-drain gadgets like clocks, remote controls and radios.”(8) Test this out to make sure it doesn’t add significantly to your maintenance costs.
12. Make a commitment to recycle all rechargeable batteries (and consider recycling single-use batteries if options are available). Specify in your contract that battery (or electronic equipment) vendors will take back spent rechargeable batteries and recycle them.
Because of the toxicity of most rechargeable batteries, their use requires a commitment to recycling (see Battery Recycling in the US). With the exception of rechargeable alkalines, all rechargeable battery chemistries — including Ni-Cds, Ni-MHs, and small sealed lead-acids (SSLAs) — can be recycled in the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.’s Charge Up to Recycle! program.
- Build manufacturer/vendor responsibility for battery recycling into purchasing contracts by requiring their physical or fiscal participation in recycling.
- Require successful bidders on battery contracts to report annually on the number of batteries sold and recycled, by chemistry.
San Francisco’s recent resolution “urges City departments buying batteries or products that include or incorporate batteries, to give preference to vendors that offer to take spent batteries back and recycle them.”(9)
Battery Chemistry: Finding the Perfect Match
The numerous battery chemistries on the market today were developed to meet the need for different charge characteristics. The following is a general guide to common battery types. For specific information, read product labels or consult with your suppliers. Panasonic, Battery-biz.com, Batteriesdirect.com, and Interstate Batteries have on-line sales directories that describe the batteries that can be used in specific products.
Single-use batteries. Most consumer (nonautomotive) batteries must be replaced after the initial charge runs out. Single-use batteries, also known as “primary” batteries, come in familiar shapes and sizes — AAA, AA, C, D, 9V, and button cells. Most single-use batteries are alkaline (containing zinc-magnesium dioxide and potassium hydroxide) or carbon-zinc batteries (D cells).
- Nonrechargeable alkaline batteries are typically used in flashlights, pagers, PDAs, travel alarm clocks, toys, and numerous other medium-sized cordless electrical products. They provide a strong charge and have a high initial power output capacity. When long-term reliability is key, as in smoke or house alarms, primary alkaline batteries may be appropriate. In these safety applications, batteries should be replaced on a regular schedule. Longer-lasting premium varieties are also available.
- Button cell batteries contain either mercuric oxide (with up to 25 mg of mercury) or silver oxide. They are specified for watches, digital thermometers, and other small electronic devices. It is important to recycle all button cell batteries, as labeling may not include information about their contents. (Batteries manufactured before 1996 may contain a higher concentration of mercury, and should be assumed to be significantly more toxic than new batteries.)
- Lithium batteries (not to be confused with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries) are single-use batteries designed for cameras and other medium-drain electronic devices. Lithium is explosive and/or flammable in reaction with air or water.(10)
Rechargeable batteries. Rechargeable batteries can be used repeatedly because the chemical reaction that creates the energy can be reversed, thereby recharging the battery. Some battery types — including Ni-MHs and Ni-Cds — can be recharged up to 1000 times. Although rechargeables currently account for only about 1 percent of battery sales in the US,(11) the National Electrical Manufacturers Association estimates that the demand for rechargeables is growing at twice the rate of the demand for nonrechargeables.(12)
Many rechargeable batteries are product specific — they are designed by manufacturers for a specific device and are often included with the product. Typically, items with product-specific batteries (such as electric toothbrushes, power tools, and cell phones) come with a battery recharger either built in or as a separate component.
Rechargeable batteries are considered environmentally preferable because they can substantially reduce waste, but they contain toxic materials such as lead and cadmium. Although a consensus exists that these batteries should be recycled, significant numbers continue to wind up in landfills and incinerators.
- Nickel-cadmium batteries were the first consumer rechargeables on the market. When handled and “conditioned” according to instructions, they are rechargeable up to 1000 times. However, Ni-Cds are prone to the “memory effect,” meaning that unless they are drained completely, they may not take a 100 percent charge. Up to 50 percent of the weight of a Ni-Cd battery consists of cadmium — a heavy metal and “possible human carcinogen” that is on the EPA’s draft list of PBTs targeted for waste minimization — and cadmium compounds.(13) Because of cadmium’s extreme toxicity, recycling of all Ni-Cd batteries is essential.
- Nickel-metal hydride batteries are often the best choice from both a cost and a waste prevention perspective. Although Ni-MHs may cost up to twice as much as Ni-Cds, they have an important advantage: they are not subject to the memory effect and thus last much longer. Ni-MH batteries come in standard sizes and can be used in a wide range of applications. Like Ni-Cds, they tend to lose their charge over time and may require recharging after periods of disuse. Ni-MH batteries can be recycled through the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.’s collection program.
- Lithium-ion batteries are used in a wide range of specific rechargeable applications, from electric vehicles to cell phones. They are also used to supply clocks with backup power when the main power supply is shut off in equipment such as fax machines, computers, clock radios, and stereo tuners. In computers, both laptop and desktop, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are sometimes soldered to the motherboard, making them difficult to replace or recycle when they (or the computer) wear out. The relatively high cost of Li-ions is justified by a number of performance advantages over other rechargeables: they are lightweight, carry a high voltage and energy density, retain their charge, are not prone to the memory effect, and work over a broad temperature range. Depending on the application they may contain manganese, cobalt, nickel, chromium, or aluminum. (The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. accepts rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for recycling but not single-use lithium batteries, commonly used in some cameras and watches.)
- Rechargeable alkaline batteries are the latest entry into the rechargeable market. Compared to other rechargeables they are cheaper and hold their charge relatively well when used intermittently. They can be recharged approximately 25 to 40 times but take a smaller charge every time. Also, they may not function properly when allowed to run down completely before recharging.
- Lead-acid batteries, also know as wet-cell batteries, are most commonly used to power cars and trucks, smaller vehicles, and other large pieces of equipment. They are flammable and explosive. Leaking battery acid is highly corrosive, and battery acid fumes are highly irritating and dangerous to the eyes.Lead is a PBT with well-documented neurological effects in humans. Because vehicular lead-acid batteries contain a significant amount of lead — 18 to 20 pounds in most passenger vehicles and more in SUVs — most states ban them from disposal facilities. In addition, several states require a deposit on vehicular lead-acid batteries to stimulate their return to auto parts dealers. As a result, recycling of these highly toxic batteries is above 90 percent in the US. Automotive battery retailers and vehicle service facilities collect and recycle lead-acid batteries when new ones are purchased or installed.
- Small sealed lead-acid batteries are smaller versions of vehicular lead-acid batteries. They are typically used as a power source for emergency lighting, wheelchairs, and other medical equipment. A smaller number of states place restrictions on SSLAs similar to those on automotive lead-acid batteries. Consequently, the recycling rate for SSLAs is much lower.
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.
In response to federal and state laws limiting battery disposal options, battery manufacturers joined together in 1994 to form the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (RBRC). The RBRC facilitates rechargeable battery recycling by individual consumers, community groups/municipalities, and public agencies/businesses. Participating manufacturers pay transportation and recycling costs for four types of batteries: Ni-Cds, Ni-MHs, Li-ions, and SSLAs weighing less than 2.2 pounds. For more information about RBRC programs, call 1-800-8-BATTERY.
- RBRC will pay for the collection, transport, and recycling of used batteries turned in by consumers to participating retail battery sellers. For a list of participating stores in your area.
- RBRC will pay the transportation and recycling costs incurred by municipalities and community groups that collect over 1000 pounds of batteries per year. For participants that collect less, the cost is up to $50 for each box of batteries sent to the RBRC for recycling. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.
- Public agencies and businesses pay the shipping and handling costs of sending used batteries to one of the RBRC’s regional “consolidation points” in Pennsylvania (United States) and Ontario (Canada).
In addition to the options provided by RBRC, numerous other firms operate recycling facilities –without manufacturer subsidies — in the US and Canada. Some of these (including INMETCO) accept alkalines and other battery types. See the Additional Information section at the end of this fact sheet for a source of battery recycling vendors. Check with your local solid waste authority for information about recycling options in your community.
Battery Recycling in the USA
Technically, almost all batteries can be recycled, yet most are thrown in the trash. According to the RBRC, the organization collected 2.5 million pounds of rechargeable batteries at some 30,000 retail outlets in the United States and Canada in 2000.(14) While this may sound impressive, it represents less than 10 percent of the 28 million pounds of recyclable Ni-Cds that the RBRC expected to enter the waste stream during that year.(15) It also falls far short of the RBRC’s own goal to recycle over 8 million batteries in 2000, for a total recovery rate of 35 percent.(16)
At least 13 US states have enacted legislation to reduce the volume and toxicity of battery waste. Several have restricted the sale of certain types of batteries — usually those containing mercury. Others have banned mercury-, lead-, or cadmium-containing batteries from disposal in ordinary landfills or trash incinerators. And several states require battery manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling battery waste. These legislative strategies have spurred:
- A reduction in the toxic constituents of batteries.
- EPA’s issuance of the Universal Waste Rule, which eliminates regulatory barriers to battery recycling but does not mandate it.
- The creation of a national recycling program for rechargeable batteries, largely funded and operated by manufacturers of batteries and battery-operated products.
No person shall knowingly dispose of used mercuric oxide batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries or sealed lead rechargeable batteries as solid waste at any time.
No person shall sell, offer for sale, or offer for promotional purposes in this State any mercuric oxide battery or any nickel-cadmium or sealed lead rechargeable battery, unless the manufacturer thereof has obtained the prior written approval of the department [of Environmental Protection] of a plan for the collection, transportation, recycling or proper disposal of that used dry cell battery.
Every manufacturer shall be liable, at his own expense, for the environmentally sound collection, transportation, recycling or proper disposal of every used mercuric oxide battery, used nickel-cadmium or sealed lead rechargeable battery, as the case may be, produced by him and sold or offered for promotional purposes in the State.
Within 15 months of the effective date of this act and at least once every six months thereafter, every manufacturer of mercuric oxide batteries or rechargeable batteries shall submit a written report to the department on used dry cell battery return or recovery rates in accordance with rules and regulations adopted by the department therefor.
For a summary of state legislation affecting battery disposal and recycling, see the EPA’s Product Stewardship web page at http://www.epa.gov. Additional information on existing and proposed state recycling laws is available from Raymond Communications at http://www.raymond.com/.
For information on rechargeable battery recycling, see the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. web site at http://www.rbrc.org/. Also see Bette K. Fishbein, Industry Program to Collect and Recycle Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cd) Batteries, INFORM Inc., 1997, and Part II, Chapter 4, of Fishbein et al., Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century, INFORM Inc., 2000.
For a list of regional and national battery recyclers, search the King County, Washington, Recycling and Reuse Database at http://www6.metrokc.gov/dnr/swd/Recycle/Recycle.asp.
For suggestions on setting up a battery recycling program, see the Battery Solutions, Inc., web site at http://www.batteryrecycling.com/.
For information on alternatives to products (including batteries) that contain cadmium, lead, mercury, and other persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic chemicals (PBTs), see INFORM’s Purchasing for Pollution Prevention web site.
1 US Environmental Protection Agency, “Batteries,” Product Stewardship fact sheet, April 30, 2001, http://www.epa.gov.
2 “San Francisco Supervisor Takes Aim at Toxic Battery Waste,” Environmental News Network, July 11, 2001; Frost and Sullivan, U.S. Battery Markets, Report No. 5949, July 1999, Figure 1-1.
3 Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, “Charge Up to Recycle,” Fall 1998.
4 US Environmental Protection Agency, “Batteries,” http://www.epa.gov.
5 “Resolution urging the City and County of San Francisco to require that City departments purchase and use only rechargeable batteries and urging the City and County of San Francisco to increase battery recycling,” approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, July 9, 2001.
6 David Pogue, “Matching the Battery to the Task,” The New York Times, August 2, 2001, G1, G6.
7 See “Take care with recharging batteries,” Consumer Reports Online, October 2000, http://www.consumerreports.org/.
8 Pogue, “Matching the Battery to the Task.”
9 “Resolution urging the City and County of San Francisco to require that City departments purchase and use only rechargeable batteries….”
10 “Batteries,” Washington State Department of Ecology, April 30, 2001, https://ecology.wa.gov/.
11 Pogue, “Matching the Battery to the Task.”
12 US Environmental Protection Agency, “Batteries,” http://www.epa.gov.
13 Material Safety Data Sheet, Nickel Cadmium Battery, Sanyo Batteries, http://www.sanyobatteries.net/pdf/nicd.pdf.
14 Marty Whitford, “Putting a Charge Into Recycling,” Waste News, January 29, 2001, 11.
15 Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., “Charge Up to Recycle,” Fall 1998, cited in Bette K. Fishbein, et al., Extended Producer Responsibility: A Materials Policy for the 21st Century, INFORM, Inc., 2000, 88, https://informinc.org/extended-producer-responsibility-materials-policy-21st-century.