Changing Battery Recycling

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You may already be aware of the heavy metals inside batteries, but an entirely different concern is present when shipping them for recycling. If not properly bagged or taped, they can short circuit and even cause a fire.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has recently been cracking down on how they’re transported. This includes collection points, battery recyclers and anyone involved in sending used batteries from Point A to Point B.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

All batteries can be categorized as either primary (single-use) batteries or secondary (rechargeable) batteries. Each type requires specific instructions to ensure it is properly discarded or recycled. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

The Lowdown

The DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has several issues with the way batteries are currently being recycled:

  1. Batteries are often collected in large containers without separating them by type, and the containers do not do enough to prevent them from mixing together during shipping.
  2. The outer packaging does not identify that batteries are inside.
  3. Mixing batteries can lead to fires. Multiple incidents have occurred where trucks containing used batteries for recycling were completely destroyed.

As a result, the DOT issued a letter earlier this year requiring all batteries to be individually bagged prior to shipping starting Jan. 10, 2010, including alkaline and rechargeable batteries.

Leading the Charge

For many battery recyclers, safety is already the name of the game. For example, Big Green Box offers a mail-in program to ship a variety of battery types for recycling. Each shipping box includes 100 plastic bags for consumers to individually wrap batteries.

“For us, there’s no extra hassle in recycling when batteries are individually bagged before they are shipped to us,” says Daniel Kinsbursky of Big Green Box. He adds that the company separates batteries by chemistry (Lead, NiCd, NiMH, Lithium, Alkaline) at a regional consolidation point and forwards the batteries to a recycling facility specializing in the extraction of that material.

“We would still need to insulate batteries to ship them from the consolidation point to each recycling facility,” he says. “This task becomes unnecessary if our customers have already bagged each battery.”

Battery recyclers are also being cautious about providing the appropriate materials to their customers. “We encourage program participants to replenish supplies as often as needed, and they are provided free of charge,” says Cheryl Lofrano-Zaske, CHMM, manager of Safety & Compliance for Call2Recycle®.

Call2Recycle collects many of its rechargeable batteries from retail stores that also sell batteries. Every participant receives a self-sealing collection box, affixed prepaid shipping label, safety and shipping instructions and plastic bags, says Lofrano-Zaske.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Each year, Americans throw out almost 180,000 tons of batteries. About 14,000 of those tons are rechargeable batteries - the rest are single-use. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Alka-fine?

If so many recyclers were already in compliance with shipping rules, what’s the significance of the new ruling? One of the main questions is whether it’s safe to ship alkaline batteries without individually wrapping them.

“We are working exceptionally hard to educate our customers about which batteries need to be insulated, but a lot of confusion still exists in regards to alkalines,” says Kinsbusky.  “These batteries also encompass a large proportion of what is returned in our program.”

To that end, the company has addressed the issue of alkaline safety to the DOT. It developed a “worst case scenario” test by lining up 12 new alkaline batteries end-to-end and attaching a copper wire to create a circuit, then periodically measured the temperature generated for 80 minutes. The temperature never reached a dangerous point, and when the batteries were replaced with spent alkalines there was very little increase in temperature at all.

As a result, the Office of Hazardous Materials Standards determined that 1.5-volt alkaline batteries do not pose an unreasonable risk when transferred and do not require special packaging. Further testing gained the same distinction for 9-volt alkaline batteries and 6-volt carbon zinc batteries.

Thinking Ahead

“Call2Recycle takes every precaution to ensure compliance with the U.S. DOT regulations, and we strongly concur with the need to ensure safe storage and shipping of materials,” says Lofrano-Zaske. “Our ultimate mission is to protect the environment, and complying with safety regulations is an integral part of fulfilling that charge.”

Nine states have banned Nickel-cadmium batteries from landfills, which means it’s possible that recycling rechargeable batteries is the law in your area. When you’re ready to recycle, take the extra step to make sure your batteries are properly prepared for shipping.

Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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