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Environment & Science

What KPCC reporters do with old batteries, and whether we should recycle them

Rechargeable batteries, alkaline batteries, zinc oxide...they all come from and go to different places.
Rechargeable batteries, alkaline batteries, zinc oxide...they all come from and go to different places.

It happened again. I heard the familiar plunk of AA batteries going into the trash in our newsroom in Pasadena. I won't name the guilty party, but I will say it's an ongoing challenge for us. We're just like the rest of California, after all. So I won't name the scofflaw among us who said, "Uh, I just throw them in the trash. Horrible, I know." Another colleague: "I feel bad tossing them but have no idea what else to do with them!" And another muttered: "Sometims reclid, some teems trahs." [translation: sometimes recycling, sometimes trash.]

But battery recyclers will be relieved to know that Adolfo Guzman Lopez, one of our education reporters, has been educated well on recycling; he does it at our downtown bureau. 

Riverside bureau chief Steven Cuevas wrote: "I just toss mine off the Santa Monica pier whenever I'm in town." (Just kidding, Heal the Bay!) But what he really does is use "rechargeable only for field equipment. Old household batteries we out aside and take to a location in Riverside." So basically, at least one of us gets it right. I like rechargeables, too. "Only way to go. AA prices are nuts," Cuevas notes.  

Health care reporter Stephanie O'Neill gives her batteries to her mom. Yep, you read that right. Her amazing mom recycles them for her at her senior center. Good job, O'Neill family!

Brand & Martinez's Sanden Totten: "I want a battery recycling bucket here at KPCC!" Done, Sanden Totten. Or, let's get it done. We'll make that happen. Why else do we have a green team? 

Honestly, though, I'd say more than half of us aren't doing it right most of the time, including me. I collect them in a brown paper bag in my car until I see some place to offload them, but I'm haphazard about it, and I have collections in several places in my house. I do use rechargeables, but I have had reliability problems with them, so I use alkaline batteries too. 

People who want  battery manufacturers to foot the recycling bill cite these kinds of stories as evidence that our current system isn't working. They include Heidi Sanborn, of the California Product Stewardship Council. The CPSC argues that cities and counties can't keep up with household hazardous waste. 

But manufacturers, part of NEMA, the industry's trade association, suggest that efforts to recycle some batteries are wasted

Modern alkaline and zinc carbon batteries do not contain materials that pose an environmental threat, and they are not regulated as hazardous waste by the U.S. federal government. Thus, there is no basis to require the mandatory collection and recycling of household alkaline and zinc carbon batteries based on any alleged health or environmental risks. In addition, effective recycling technology is not currently available for these batteries, and the negative environmental impacts of special collection systems including emissions from vehicles may be greater. 

NEMA goes on to say: 

Governments should focus their current efforts on collecting and recycling batteries that contain significant quantities of hazardous materials, such as nickel cadmium, mercury, and lead acid batteries.

Companies in NEMA include Duracell, Eastman Kodak Company, Eveready Battery Company, Panasonic, Polaroid & Rayovac. 

Then there's this paper presented by the CPSC on its website, which was written for NEMA by some Massachusetts Institute of Technology Materials Systems Lab scientists. They make a life cycle analysis of alkaline batteries--environmental and energy impacts from cradle to grave, for batteries that make up 80 percent of the market.

The paper concludes that materials production, upstream from manufacturing, has the worst environmental impact. In other words, what happens before the metals and toxics even get to the factory creates the most ecological damage. Manufacturing's not off the hook, though. "Of the phases of the alkaline battery life cycle that fall directly within control of the battery manufacturing industry, the manufacturing facility has the largest impact," the paper says. "Electricity use within this facility drives the environmental impact."

The crux of the problem seems to exist in that paper, and maybe even in this question: Who should pay for the environmental costs of digging up those materials? You figure that out, let us know.