The United States consumes over $10.4 billion in batteries annually, powering everything from children's toys to hearing aids. Because batteries contain certain toxic substances, such as cadmium , lead , and sulfuric acid , introducing them into landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities once they are used can be harmful to the environment and to public health.
Virtually every type of battery currently in common use—alkaline, lead acid, nickel-cadmium, lithium ion , and more—can be recycled to some extent. Even rechargeable batteries, which were designed in part to cut down on the expense and environmental impact of battery consumption, can be recycled after they have lost the ability to hold a charge.
The Universal Waste Rule, an amendment to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was introduced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1995 in an effort to lower some of the administrative and financial barriers to collection and recycling of batteries and other potentially hazardous household products. It was hoped that making recycling of lead batteries easier and more profitable to recycle would lead to more extensive recycling programs. The rule streamlined the regulatory process for businesses and excluded rechargeable batteries from hazardous waste handling requirements. However, individual states had the final determination over whether or not to adopt the amendment.
Further EPA legislation passed in 1996 entitled the Mercury-Containing Rechargeable Battery Management Act (or Battery Act) promotes recycling of rechargeable batteries through a national uniform code that removes obstacles presented by conflicting state recycling laws and regulations. The Battery Act also mandates that manufacturers of portable rechargeable batteries and products use universal recycling labeling, make batteries easy to remove from products, and prohibit the intentional introduction of mercury into batteries (i.e., mercury added beyond the trace amount present naturally).
Some battery manufacturers have created take-back programs, sometimes referred to as product stewardship or extended producer responsibility, to encourage recycling of their products. Manufacturers "take back" used batteries that are returned by consumers, retailers, and community recycling programs. These programs are voluntary in the United States, and are popular in the European Union (EU) where they are legally required in many countries. Austria and Germany, for example, require all battery manufacturers to take back batteries at no cost to the consumer.
According to the EPA, over 350 million rechargeable batteries are sold each year in the United States. The industry trade magazine Electronics Business News puts worldwide sales of rechargeable batteries at approximately $5.5 billion in 2001. Yet only a small portion of these rechargeable batteries enter the recycling stream, and the batteries have become a significant source of heavy metal contamination at solid waste facilities.
Passage of the Battery Act paved the way for the largest North American take-back battery recycling program, administered by the non-profit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC). The RBRC facilitates and promotes awareness of rechargeable battery recycling throughout the United States and Canada. Its activities are funded through licensing fees paid by the by manufacturers of portable rechargeable batteries and products. The RBRC recycles nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd), nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH), lithium ion (Li-ion), and small sealed lead (Pb; SSLA) batteries used in cordless phones, power tools, laptop and notebook computers, cell phones, and other portable devices.
Lead-acid batteries, the type of wet-cell battery used in cars, boats, and other vehicles, are one of the most highly recycled products in America. In 1999, 93.3% of lead-acid batteries were recycled, compared to 42% of all paper and 52% of aluminum cans. As of early 2002, 42 states had adopted legislation requiring the recycling of lead-acid batteries. Some states charge a deposit fee to consumers who purchase a new lead-acid battery without trading in an old one for recycling. Most states that charge this fee (including Arizona, Minnesota, and New York) refund it if the consumer brings back a used battery for recycling after the purchase. In addition to keeping lead and sulfuric acid out of solid waste facilities, lead-acid battery recycling is a substantial source of recycled polypropylene and generates 2 billion lb (907 million kg) of lead for reuse annually.
Most alkaline and carbon-zinc batteries manufactured in the United States since 1993 do not contain added mercury, and therefore are not considered hazardous waste. Because of the perceived reduced risk of these "zero added mercury" batteries to the environment, many communities advise residents to deposit them into their regular trash, where they end up in landfills. This method is sometimes deemed more cost-effective than sorting and transporting these batteries for recycling. However, recycling programs for alkaline batteries are available and growing in popularity.
[Paula Anne Ford-Martin ]
Pistoia, J. et al eds. Used Battery Collection and Recycling. New York: Elsevier Science, 2001.
Sova, Chris and Harve Muellerx. "A Charged-Up Market: The Recycling of Several Types of Batteries Has Created a Number of Established Processes." Recycling Today 40, no.3 (March 2002):100.
Municipal and Industrial Solid Waste Division, Office of Solid Waste, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act." 42 USC 14301. <http://www.access.gpo.gov/uscode/title42/chapter137_.html> [May 17, 2002].