Batteries are a ubiquitous part of our daily lives. Personal MP3 devices, hand-held tools and cell phones all work on batteries. Battery-operated products boost work productivity and increase business and personal communication. But batteries have a downside: Current battery technology depends on toxic metals and corrosive chemicals to produce electronic current from a small, portable package. Recycling diminishes the environmental harms of battery disposal, but may create other environmental issues in the process.
Battery recycling helps to keep the toxic metals and chemicals contained in batteries from leaching out of landfills and into water supplies, according to Isidor Buchmann, founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics, a battery charger manufacturer, writing for the battery information web resource Battery University. Standard car batteries are composed primarily of lead plates and sulfuric acid, both of which are harmful to the environment.
Nickel-cadmium is a common base for rechargeable batteries, which are more environmentally friendly since they are not disposed of as frequently. Nickel-cadmium batteries should not be land-filled, as the cadmium dissolves and can seep into groundwater. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries also contain hazardous materials. Battery recycling programs help to remove all these hazards, as well as the sheer volume of used batteries, from the municipal solid waste stream and into safer disposal avenues.
Recycling Energy and Emissions
Although removing batteries from the municipal solid waste stream and into recycling reduces the toxic impacts, battery recycling is not wholly environmentally benign. Isidor Buchmann explains that there are significant transportation and related fuel costs to get batteries to recycling facilities and properly sorted into chemically related classes of materials. Battery recycling processes also require significant amounts of energy. According to Buchmann, it takes 6 to 10 times more energy to reclaim metals from batteries than it would take to obtain those same metals by other means.
In discussing the potential advantages of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles, scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy noted that both intensive energy requirements and sulfur dioxide production are environmental impacts of battery production and recycling. Through Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy is investigating these and other environmental safety issues related to battery recycling.
Fire is an environmental hazard in battery recycling. Lithium batteries have relatively safe chemical components, but if not handled carefully, they present a fire hazard while decomposing, especially if moisture seeps into cells that are corroding, warns Isidor Buchmann. But fire danger is not limited to lithium batteries.
Most consumer batteries have the potential to short-circuit if the terminals come in contact with one another, which they are likely to do in the jumble of a public or campus recycling bin. Recycling programs like that at Columbia University now require consumers to place the batteries in their original packaging or in separate zipper-sealed plastic bags, or to place sturdy packing tape over the battery terminals prior to placing them in recycling bins. This minimizes battery recycling fire hazards, but also adds significant quantities of non-recyclable trash to the waste stream.