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Recycling illustration LIVING GREEN

The Afterlife of Batteries

Where do rechargeable batteries go when they die?

by Jason Best

The workhorses of our wireless world often get nothing better than a pauper's grave in the local landfill. Where should all those rechargeable batteries go after they die?

Just about the time commercials for Terminator 3 began airing with the foreboding tagline "The machines will rise," my cordless telephone started acting up. I couldn't talk on it for more than 10 minutes before a low, grating beeping began, and this was always accompanied by the same unequivocal message -- "Battery Low" -- even though it had been getting juiced all day.

By the time I saw The Matrix Reloaded (the one where the robots have actually enslaved all of humanity), I'd bought a new rechargeable battery for my phone, but I still hadn't figured out what to do with the old battery, on which was printed in tiny capital letters the admonishment, "Must be recycled or disposed of properly" (with not a whit on how to do either).

Most of us give hardly a thought to these little chemical bundles that power our cell phones, laptops, PDAs, and cordless everything, from shavers to camcorders, and which have transformed us into a nation of perambulating multitaskers. (The average American uses five cordless products in their daily life, up from three in 1999.) Their impeccable, compact casing belies the fact that all of them -- nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH), lithium-ion (Li-ion), and, nastiest of all, nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) -- are full of toxic chemicals. In anywhere from one to five years, after they've been recharged between 500 and 1,500 times, they will have to be disposed of -- somehow. By 2005, cell phone batteries alone are expected to account for 32,500 tons of waste.

So, really, Hollywood's got it all wrong: It's not the cyborgs we need to worry about; it's their rechargeable batteries.

Not knowing what to do, I went to another of my machines and typed "recycle batteries" into Google. Sure enough, answers started flowing from the website of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation ( It turns out that RBRC spends millions of dollars a year trying to make you aware of its existence (without much success, perhaps). Its slick website, like its television and print ads, stars its very own celebrity spokesman, Richard Karn, "Al" from TV's Home Improvement. All you have to do is key in your zip code (or call 800-8-BATTERY), and RBRC provides you with a list of retail stores near you that voluntarily collect batteries as part of its recycling program (there are 30,000 outlets in the United States and Canada).

RBRC was formed by the rechargeable battery industry in 1994, after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that Ni-Cds, one of the most widely used rechargeable batteries at the time, were responsible for more than half of the cadmium found in municipal solid waste. This attracted the attention of state and federal legislators, since, according to EPA, cadmium is one of the most hazardous chemicals in the environment.

Rather than face any more government meddling, the five largest battery manufacturers decided to prove that they could deal with the problem themselves. RBRC was, and remains, the only industrywide "take-back" program in the country, and when it was launched it was hailed as a model of how manufacturers could take responsibility for a product's entire life cycle. In 2001, RBRC decided to accept all rechargeable batteries, not just Ni-Cds.

The only problem is that the program doesn't seem to work very well, and no one is checking up on the industry to see if it's making real progress on its promise to recycle its wares. A recent RBRC press release crowed that the organization was on track to collect four million pounds of batteries in 2003. But according to an RBRC report published five years ago, the organization collected about four million pounds in 1997. Moreover, the group had anticipated that by now, it would be collecting more than 14 million pounds per year, or 50 percent of spent rechargeable batteries. (An estimate doesn't even take into account the subsequent explosion in cell phone use.)

Obviously, a lot of batteries are getting tossed in the trash. Why? Well, one reason seems to be that people you'd expect to know about RBRC's program -- the clerks in the stores that officially participate as battery collectors -- don't. I contacted more than 70 stores across the country, big names such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears, Target, The Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, and explained my dilemma ("I have an old rechargeable battery that says it needs to be recycled," etc.). Fewer than half of the clerks told me that I could drop my battery off at the store. The more typical response came from an employee at an Oregon Wal-Mart: "Aw, just throw it away," she told me with a "don't worry about it, sugar," laugh. "That's all we do."

I did eventually get rid of my battery at RadioShack; their clerks were the only ones to consistently provide the right information over the phone. But instead of feeling satisfied that I'd done the right thing, I just felt the smallness of my action. I'm all charged up about this battery problem now, but unfortunately, nobody else seems to be.

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

Illustration: Mark Danielson

OnEarth. Fall 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council