Single Use Batteries * Batteries * Household Batteries * Mercury * Power * Recycling

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Household Batteries: Waste Prevention, Replacement and Recycling Strategies

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Batteries are the primary source of power in so many of the modern conveniences we now take for granted in our households. Children's toys, flashlights, remotes, smoke detectors, digital cameras -- the list goes on and on. The demand for "portable power" has never been such an integral part of American's lives, with over three billion single-use dry cell batteries sold each year in the United States alone.

The first wet cell (as in your car or boat) batteries and dry cell (household use) batteries were invented in the latter half of the 19th century, and by 1900 the D-sized battery was powering the first flashlights. The basis for modern battery technology was established in the late 18th century, when Alessandro Volta stacked discs soaked with a salt solution between zinc and copper plates to create an electric current.

Although batteries are a great invention, they just are not very earth-friendly. The rapid proliferation of battery-operated gadgets over the last decade has led to an increase of toxic waste entering landfills. Although single-use alkaline batteries are much less toxic than they used to be, the minimum 146,000 tons of annual U.S. battery waste still contributes a significant amount of mercury, cadmium, and lead to our waste stream. As batteries decompose in landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed “The Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act,”, legislation which mandated that Mercury be phased out of certain types of batteries. This greatly reduced the environmental impact caused by disposing hundreds of millions of mercury-containing batteries into the waste stream and landfills. The act also outlined procedures for recycling NiCd batteries, making it easier for rechargeable battery and product manufacturers to collect and recycle Ni-Cd batteries and certain small sealed lead-acid batteries.

Types of Household Batteries

Dry-cell batteries are those used typically in household applications and include alkaline and carbon zinc (AA, AAA, 9-volt, D, C)-- mercuric-oxide (button, rectangular, cylindrical)-- silver-oxide and zinc-air (or button)-- and lithium (9-volt, C, AA, coin, button, rechargeable) batteries. And if this list of battery types isn't overwhelming enough, many of these may either be a "primary" battery: that is, a single-use or non-rechargeable version-- or a "secondary" or rechargeable battery. Rechargeable batteries are batteries which can be restored to a full charge through the application of electrical energy.

There are three primary types of rechargeable battery technologies:

  • Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) First used commercially in the 1960s, these were the original dry cell rechargeable batteries. Unfortunately, these contain cadmium which is toxic, and another negative is that these batteries are prone to what is called the "memory effect". Memory effect is when a battery’s maximum energy capacity gradually decreases as a result of being recharged before the battery has completely discharged.
  • Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) Free from toxic cadmium and longer lasting than NiCd, NiMH batteries also have very little memory effect. Nickel-metal hydride batteries are commonly used in high-discharge devices like portable power tools, digital cameras, cell phones and laptops.
  • Lithium Ion (Li Ion) Lithium ion batteries are lighter weight, longer lasting and more quick to charge than the Nickel-based battery technologies. They are also free from both memory effect and environmental hazards. Lithium ion batteries are most often used in cell phones and mobile computing devices. Newer Lithium-based batteries continue to improve these key areas of performance.

So What Can You Do to Prevent Battery Waste?

It would be nice to simply state "boycott all products that require batteries" but that would not be a realistic answer. Although there are some choices that can be made as far as selecting rechargeable children's toys and small appliances, this certainly won't change the world. Answers more likely will include a combination of this selective reduction of battery-driven devices, the use of rechargeable batteries in place of primary batteries, recycling programs, and solar battery chargers.

Use Rechargeable Batteries. According to Energy Star, a government program that promotes energy efficiency, about 230 million products use battery charging systems in American homes and businesses. Energy Star promotes energy-efficient battery chargers and estimates that Americans could save over 1,000,000,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year if they used more efficient chargers. While switching to rechargeables may seem too expensive at first, at $20-$30 for a battery charger and $1-$6 each for the batteries, they are much less costly than single-use cells in the long run and will prevent the hundreds of batteries per household from decaying in landfills. And they are easy to find-- rechargeable batteries and chargers are readily available in hardware, home, or electronics stores. Although Ni-Cd batteries can be charged several hundred times, they do eventually die out, at which point they must be recycled, since they require the hazardous heavy metal cadmium to operate. Rechargeable alkalines die out after about 25 charges and may be disposed of through your local sanitation department.

Use Solar Chargers. Go one step above just switching to rechargeable batteries; get a solar charger. Consider that to recharge all these batteries you still have to plug them in and use yet another source of energy that costs money. A solar battery charger is inexpensive and also very easy to use, and are available for a wide selection of electronic devices. There are solar digital camera battery chargers, cell phone and ipod solar chargers, and solar chargers compatible for hearing aid batteries, GPS, laptops, DVD players, Mp3-- the list goes on and on. There are many different options available to suit various needs-- from simple little panels you can carry in a bag or purse, to panels that are a part of a backpack. The sun's energy is free, clean, and unlimited-- why not utilize it?

Battery Recycling and Disposal

With the average U.S. family disposing approximately 32 batteries annually, battery recycling programs are more crucial than ever. Recycling batteries keeps heavy metals out of landfills and the air, while saving resources as the recovered plastic and metals can be used to make new batteries. Battery collection programs typically target button and NiCd batteries, but may collect all household batteries because of the consumers' difficulty in identifying battery types. There are also different requirements for recycling the many battery types, and this can be confusing for the consumer. Many states have regulations in place requiring some form of battery recycling-- for instance, California mandates recycling for almost all battery types. You will want to check with your local sanitation department or other state agency to confirm the requirements for your location.

The use of rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries can reduce the number of batteries entering the waste stream, but may also increase the amount of heavy metals entering the same waste stream unless they are more effectively recycled. Lithium-Ion batteries are recyclable as well, and the metal content of these batteries can be recovered in the recycling process. The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation has set up collection sites at numerous home stores across the U.S.-- their website lists locations in the U.S. and Canada (see below).

Mercury-oxide and silver-oxide button batteries are often collected by jewelers, pharmacies, and hearing-aid stores who sell them to companies that reclaim the metals. Mercuric-oxide batteries are being gradually replaced by new technology such as silver-oxide and zinc-air button batteries that contain less mercury.

Single-use, primary "alkaline batteries". These batteries are classified by the federal government as non-hazardous waste-- you can place them directly in the trash (although requirements vary by state, particularly CA). In many cities, there are retailers that will recycle most types of batteries; and if the battery is not recyclable, they will get rid of it safely. This would be the preferred route to go.

In Summary

The bottom line? The fewer batteries we discard, the better. Battery manufacturers continue to balance desires for battery longevity with the need for environmental responsibility as they seek to improve battery performance, promote battery recycling and continue looking for ways to reduce waste. One certainty is that as technology and resources continue to shrink, demand for portable and reusable power is only going to grow. Let's all do our part and utilize waste prevention and recycling strategies, while eliminating the single-use battery phenomenon as much as possible.

Here are some resources for finding more information regarding recycling and disposal of various types of batteries:

Environment, Health and Safety Online-- Battery Recycling and Disposal Guide for Households

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC)-- a non-profit public service organization dedicated to recycling rechargeable batteries and cell phones. For more information or to find the nearest participating drop-off location, call 1-877-2-RECYCLE or go online at

Battery Solutions-- a commercial business the provides battery-recycling kits, systems, and services to corporations, governments, municipalities, and households across the country.

Earth An informative website with all sorts of recycling information about batteries and more.

Contact your local or county health department, waste disposal operator, recycling facility, or call the EPA Hotline and ask for a copy of the publication: "Used Dry Cell Batteries" at (800) 424-9346.