Trash or Charge?
What happens when the single-use batteries in your flashlight, remote or toy go dead? You replace them. What do you do with the dead batteries? If you throw them in the trash, you’re a criminal.
In California and 18 other states, it is illegal to dispose of batteries in the trash. By law, California’s batteries must be recycled at a hazardous waste disposal facility, a universal waste handler like a storage facility or broker, or at an authorized recycling facility. If batteries reach a landfill, rains will come, eventually corroding the batteries, which then leach nasty chemicals such as mercury, lead and cadmium into the soil.
The chemicals pollute the water table, eventually permeating our food and bodies. Valuable metals and minerals in the batteries such as steel, iron, brass, manganese, nickel, cobalt and zinc are lost. According to some estimates, the average person in the United States discards eight dry-cell batteries per year, amounting to three billion batteries annually, and worldwide, about 15 billion batteries are tossed every year.
In Central Marin, some Next Door contributors are discussing environmental problems and what individuals can do about them. You might now be wondering about how to recycle your household batteries: The alkaline and the lithium, and those old Ni-Cad and NiMh rechargeables, plus the newer lithium-ion batteries found in mobile phones, laptops, tablets, medical equipment, electric vehicles and power tools that all contain recoverable materials.
Fortunately, if you live in Marin, there are approximately 58 drop-off locations that accept batteries for recycling, including some food stores and other commonly visited businesses. Most take all types of batteries, but some take only rechargeables.
However you accumulate your used batteries, the important thing is to keep them out of the trash. Marin County has two main waste streams for consumer batteries. They work something like this: The first end-point is the Marin Household Hazardous Waste Facility at 565 Jacoby St. in San Rafael, near Marin Sanitary Service’s processing center.
This stream is fed by drop-off points at 23 fire stations; seven city offices and police stations; six hardware stores; both Good Earth stores; both United Markets; Radio Shack; Waterstreet Company in Sausalito; Staples and Renew Computers; and, in Mill Valley, the Library, the Sewerage Agency and the Community Center. Additionally, batteries can be dropped off directly at the hazardous waste facility.
Kathy Wall, the Facility’s program manager, provided me with a spreadsheet showing all the locations. She informed me that, although the list is not currently online, it will be made available soon and will include one or two locations that I discovered were not yet on the list. Below, there is a link to Zero Waste Marin’s collection locations:
In Sonoma County, the ZeroWasteSonoma.gov website reminds us that “By law, retailers selling rechargeable batteries are required to take back used rechargeable batteries weighing 11 pounds or less from their customers.”
Santa Rosa and Windsor have an alternate collection solution for batteries that, well, kicks ass. All you have to do is prevent shorting by taping the terminals of all rechargeable batteries and alkaline batteries 9-volt or larger, then tape your batteries up with heavy-duty clear tape. Place the batteries in a bag—preferably paper, of course—and seal it firmly, then place the bag on top of the blue recycle cart for pick up.
In addition, you can dispose of all kinds of batteries through the Agency’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility and related programs. The same packaging instructions apply. Each of the three Sonoma haulers have their own sorting guidelines, also found on the Zero Waste Sonoma website, ZeroWasteSonoma.gov.
Call2recycle.org has a partial list of other local recycling locations, which I have rounded out with the following: Both Staples stores take all household batteries, plus many office and home items. Home Depot accepts rechargeable batteries only. Best Buy and Renew Computers, in San Rafael, seem to be the overall recycling champions, although they, too, only accept rechargeable batteries and not common, single-use batteries such as alkaline, lithium and “heavy duty” non-alkaline batteries.
Best Buy also accepts button batteries, along with a long list of office and home equipment. Renew Computers also takes computers and electronics to be “sorted, repaired, reused, or properly recycled.”
Those batteries are organized, then taped up for shipping by one person at the hazardous waste facility, then are sent to a Battery Solutions center in Mesa, Arizona, for aggregation with other deliveries, which then go on to Battery Solutions headquarters in Wixom, Michigan, for processing.
Battery Solutions processes batteries to recover materials by sorting batteries by their various chemical components. Then, rather than using high heat, they use a mechanical process to separate the component materials.
The 20% that is steel is magnetically separated and sent on to steel mills. The 15% comprising the paper and plastic bits of the label and the brass pin are sifted out and distributed. The 58% that is a powdered zinc/manganese concentrate is separated. Interestingly, at least some of the zinc and manganese are used as soil amendments to enhance the productivity of such crops as corn and beans. 7% is lost in moisture.
The second all-types-of-batteries stream, run by Zero Waste Marin, is fed by 10 collection points from Bolinas to Sausalito. Those collection points can be found at:
Not listed at that site is Batteries + Bulbs in San Rafael, which accepts only rechargeable batteries.
Zero-waste batteries are periodically collected by Don Lees of Revolt Recycling in San Leandro. According to Lees, “Only 22% of Californians recycle their household batteries.”
Lees also collects from several other jurisdictions in the Bay Area. He organizes them by type, tapes them up and ships them to Battery Recycling Made Easy (BRME) in Georgia.
BRME is headed by John Patterson, who says his company accepts all household batteries for recycling. However, they melt only cell phone batteries, creating a “recovered remelt alloy,” which includes nickel, cobalt and iron, and is sold to “the super specialty alloy industry.”
Patterson says that “nickel and cobalt are used in jet engines.”
Iron, of course, can be used to make steel and other iron alloys. When asked what exactly is done with the other batteries that he accepts, Patterson states that, “We recycle them.” When pressed about how that is done and what happens to the resulting metals, Patterson, unlike Spalding of Battery Solutions, responded, “I’m not going to tell you,” a recurring phrase throughout our conversation.
While all batteries have some potential for fire and explosion, there are many more potential hazards with lithium-ion batteries. They are high-energy, and sensitive to humidity and puncture. Stories circulate about computers and toys that use li-ion batteries catching on fire. A runaway fire in a shipment of li-ion batteries brought down a UPS cargo plane, killing its two crew members. That’s why you can’t airmail li-ion batteries.
Fires have also started in garbage trucks, at least one Fedex truck, in homes and at various fire station collection points. Because of that, it’s recommended to put a little tape on the battery terminals when recycling, especially on the lithium-ion ones and alkaline batteries of nine volts and greater.
Robert Alexander massages, trains people, writes and digs through the trash in San Anselmo. He can be reached at [email protected].