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Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Beware of Your Batteries

Sitting on a table in a corner of my office, there's a cardboard box literally overflowing with about 15 pounds of AA batteries, most of them alkaline cells. The box also contains a smattering of AAA, C, D, and 9V batteries, plus a few dead rechargeables thrown in for good measure. The box and its nearby satellites of battery-filled Ziploc baggies have been accumulating in my office for several years. Like you, I know that throwing out batteries is bad for the environment. As one AZoCleantech site notes, "batteries are made in the billions with around 180000 tonnes of batteries being discarded in the USA every year." My few pounds may be a drop in the bucket, but they're my drop -- my mess, my problem to clean up.

But how? The page referenced above notes that most single-use household batteries can't be recycled. I've heard from a couple of friends that Radio Shack is supposed to recycle batteries, but calls to two local stores proved otherwise. Lowe's, Office Depot, and BatteriesPlus are both supposed to accept rechargeable cells, but must of my collection is alkaline. 

I spoke with Brent Young, director of business development at E-Tech Recycling out in Hillsboro, OR. E-Tech does take alkaline batteries and just about any other type of e-waste -- for a price.

"Batteries are difficult to get rid of because they're universal waste and there's only so many places you can go with them," said Young. "There's a non-profit, Call2Recycle, and it's the only place where you can send your rechargeables for free."

E-Tech charges 60 to 90 cents per pound for recycling alkaline batteries. Lithium button cells will run $2.75 to $3.25 per pound. 
"Those little button cell batteries with the mercury in them, we don't want those buried in the dirt because they crack and leak," said Young. "Mercury is extremely poisonous, fluorescent tubes especially. If you break a flourescent tube in any place of business, it should be considered a hazardous material that requires a hazardous determination and a hazardous cleanup. Once it's cleaned up, inside a box, and taped up -- so the powder is no longer exposed to the air -- it goes back to being considered a universal waste. If I took 25 four-foot fluorescent tubes out into the middle of a 2-acre lake, broke them, and dumped them in the lake, nothing's gonna grow there for at least a decade. That's mercury."

Lithium-ion batteries also need to be handled carefully, with tape placed over each end. (The labor of removing this tape is part of why the cells cost more to recycle.) 

"Why don't we want those button cells touching each other? Because they heat up, short out, and can crack. Take five or six of them, stick 'em end to end, put 'em in your pocket, and see how long you can go. You'll be blown away by how hot they can get. When lithium shorts out, it starts burning. It feeds on air and water. You take a lithium fire, throw water on it, and whatever building you're in will be gone in about two hours."

PC enthusiast readers should remember the recent spate of lithium-ion battery recalls owing to some notable media coverage (see image above). In case you missed the connection with flammable lithium along the way, watch this little video clip. And not even I made the connection with lithium cells and the hazards caused by accidental ingestion. Check out this Consumer Reports video. That's not cool.

I originally looked into this topic when researching a story on e-waste handling in enterprises. But as with so many other tech issues, the problem eventually comes home. E-waste disposal is a serious problem, and these items absolutely shouldn't be going into our landfills. Contact your local recycler and find out where you safely dispose of your hazardous substances. Anticipate that when you buy technology, there will also be a disposal charge when you're done with it. Perhaps if we bore these costs (and the dangers behind them) in mind more often, we'd be less inclined to buy so much.

For more on toxic tech manufacturing and recycling, check out the later chapters in my ebook, Strange Horizons Retrospective, available on Amazon and Smashwords.

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