Environment & Science

New state grant provides incentives for recycling batteries

A tub of batteries.
A tub of batteries.

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In California, it's illegal to trash old batteries in California. It also doesn't seem to matter. Only a fraction of a percent of batteries sold here are recycled.

But over the past year, a project in the San Gabriel Valley has sought to change that.

Around every corner, on every aisle, someone's ready at Altadena Hardware to answer your question or mix your paint — even owner Jimmy Orlandini.

"These are tool batteries," says Orlandini, showing off a big black brick like the bottom of a power drill. "We get everything — computer batteries, cell phone batteries. Some people come in with a whole box there and I'm going, 'ho, okay'. [...] People think hardware stores take stuff like that back. They kind of expect it."

Even spent batteries contain toxic chemicals like cadmium and lead. Which is why, six years ago, California made it illegal to toss them in the trash. In the past, Orlandini considered hiring hazardous waste services to handle them.

"I talked to a couple of trash companies and it was really expensive for me to do it," he explained. "I would have to pay out of my pocket and that's just not going to happen."

These days Orlandini’s taking in buckets of batteries, and he’s not spending a dime. A state grant established a recycling drop off point in his store.

Now, Orlandini says he mails a big box of batteries to a recycling center every week.

"It's on the internet and they look up where they can bring their batteries," said the hardware store owner. "And then they see my store and they hand them to my register people. Easily, 20-30 people a week that come in just to recycle the batteries."

The nonprofit California Product Stewardship Council is a partner in this recycling push. The council’s executive director, Heidi Sanborn, says makers of rechargeable batteries are paying Orlandini’s postage.

"Cause they wanted to test, if they co-mingled the rechargeables and the alkalines, would they get more rechargeables back," Sanborn says. "It turns out they are."

Rechargeable makers have a stake in recycling because their old product uses rare earth metals that can be stripped out and re-used.

"These type of minerals take a lot of money to get out of the ground," Sanborn says. "And it's a lot cheaper to mine back from the public."

On this day, Sanborn is checking in on the Dinosaur Farm, a South Pasadena toy store with a special love for raptors and triceratops. She rifles through the battery drop-off box in the back room, making mental note of where the batteries were made and purchased. She gushes that "this is really packed."

Getting consumers to dig around for old batteries takes aggressive public education. The kind Sanborn does as she asks Dinosaur Farm owner Dave Plenn about interest in the program, and presses him to put signs in both the front and back windows.

Especially where people might not expect recycling, like a toy store, Sanborn says good signs and visibility have helped the program.

Dinosaur Farm owner Dave Plenn says he relies on his eco-minded staffers to keep recycling going.

"I told them about somebody busting me for putting them in the trash can here," he says. "Just going, you know, 'we have a place like that'." Plenn admits he forgot he had recycling for batteries in his own store. "I think a lot of people like me haven't really made that part of their deal."

Plenn sells way fewer electronic toys than a Toys R Us. And way fewer batteries.

"That's, yeah, the way the customers like it," he nods. "Unique, not big boxy, not cheesy, cheap and electronic."

The Dinosaur Farm has long community roots, though and recycling batteries serves them, says Plenn. Thing is, according to Sanborn, most people buy the bulk of their batteries, 60 percent or more, at Costco & Wal-Mart: big box stores.

"So really it's interesting that the smaller stores are the first to step up to recycle," Sanborn says. "But the big stores really haven't."

When the CalRecycle grant runs out this month, Sanborn hopes to have recycled 10,000 pounds of old batteries. Recycling drop-off points won't disappear, though. Call2Recycle, a rechargeable battery product stewardship group, will keep paying for San Gabriel Valley businesses to ship off what they collect.