Finding Value in Battery Recycling

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Rechargeable battery recycling

Batteries come in all shapes and sizes for a multitude of applications. Rechargeables are best used to support high-drain devices like electric toothbrushes, power tools and laptops, while single-use batteries best power slower-drain gadgets like flashlights, wall clocks and smoke detectors. Photo: Jennifer Berry, Earth911.com

Recycling is one of the easiest and most accessible ways for people to reduce their environmental footprints. Every year, recycling in the U.S. saves millions of tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, reduces the need to extract virgin materials and keeps valuable resources in use and out of landfills.

In 2008 alone, the U.S. recycled 83 million tons of municipal solid waste, creating enough carbon emissions savings comparable to removing 33 million passenger cars from the road, according to the EPA.

These savings are the result of many established, and generally widely available collection systems that harvest valuable materials for reuse. But with all of the benefits associated with recycling, sometimes it is not the most viable option for all types of waste.

Battery recycling is one representation of this scenario: where well-established recycling streams for rechargeables make sound environmental sense, while the quest for creating a national solution for single-use batteries is still in full-force.

Earth911.com interviewed battery experts to examine the overall lifecycle considerations of these materials and the challenges the industry is tackling to create environmentally solid end-of-life options.

There is value in rechargeables

According to the EPA, Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries every year to power radios, toys, cell phones, watches, laptop computers and portable power tools, and nearly one in five dry-cell batteries purchased in the U.S. is rechargeable.

Rechargeable batteries contain heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium, and other ingredients that are important to keep out of landfills. Recycling them prevents potential pollution and recovers valuable materials for reuse. And for this both established and growing segment of portable power, efficient and necessary recycling resources are widely available.

According to Dana Barka, senior manager of marketing communications for Call2Recycle, the nation’s only free rechargeable battery recycler, rechargeables have more valuable metals in them than single-use batteries and are typically much much heavier, sometimes weighing up to 10 to 11 pounds (think: lawnmowers, medical equipment or drivable toy cars).

“It’s obvious that you can see the connection between ‘I can recover 10 pounds of lead’ [from a rechargeable] or ‘I could recover some zinc oxide,’ which is what’s in a single-use battery,” she says. “So these heavier batteries, it’s really easy to melt down those metals and make new materials or new batteries even […] there aren’t valuable metals in a single-use battery at all. And it’s not hazardous – it’s not lead.”

Barka notes that the valuable – and potentially dangerous – materials in a rechargeable battery create a strong case for recycling.  “It doesn’t make sense to throw them out. They don’t belong in landfills, and some of them, if they did, could create harm so far in the future ,we won’t even be here. It will be for our great-grandchildren. Why risk that when we can make good use of those materials now?”

These reasons are some of the key drivers for creating a viable recycling solution: valuable product that can be extracted, pollution prevention and an end-market for these resources.

The single-use recycling dilemma

While rechargeable batteries hold their value at their end-of-life, finding ways to extract valuable materials from single-use cells is a different story. Their materials are not as valuable, processing centers are far apart, and the most effective methods of extracting metals from the batteries are still being analyzed.

The most valuable, and easily extracted, resource that typical single-use batteries contain is steel, which is utilized in their casings. The chemicals within are more difficult to manage and require more sophisticated technologies to remove.

“There’s not a lot of really valuable ingredients you can get out of an alkaline battery because when it’s spent, it’s spent,” says Kurt Iverson, global external relations manager for Duracell. “There aren’t a lot of uses for spent batteries […] It’s not in high-demand, that’s the problem. The problem is that it goes along a lot with the price of steel, for recycled steel, and steel prices are pretty low. So, recycling-wise, there’s always a lot of research internally with the brands, and on an industry basis, to find a good use for it.”

Additionally, for batteries, most of the inherent energy savings are in production and pre-production. “Any life cycle analysis just tells you where the energy is being spent, and that’s you know that sometimes brings up surprises,” says Iverson. “Which, in the case of batteries, part of the surprise is that recycling the end-of-life is not necessarily the biggest point of impact for the environment.”

This higher up-front cost, typical of many consumer products, means that the benefits recycling process must outweigh the costs.

“You have to justify the collection and the transportation of all those batteries and then ultimately the de-manufacturing or smelting, and all of those things cost in carbon footprint along the way,” says Iverson. “So if we can find something valuable, that makes it worth the expenditure on the carbon and recycling front.”

Analyzing the issues

Currently, battery producers and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) are working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to conduct a study on what single-use recycling processes offer the most bang for their buck – that is, the most valuable material extraction for the least amount of resources.

“The focus is to study the lifecycle impacts of various alternative options for managing single-use alkaline batteries at end of life,” says Mark Kohorst, senior manager of environment, health and safety for NEMA. “It essentially compares the various treatment recycling scenarios with the current management option in most places, which is landfilling.

“We intentionally designed it to replicate, as much as possible, the California environment,” Kohorst adds. “California is the only state to declare that alkaline batteries are hazardous.”

The study takes into account the factors that influence whether or not recycling is the best use of energy, considering the distances materials must travel, the types of processing the materials could undergo and potential collection methods.

Western Europe has established recycling processes for single-use batteries, according to Iverson. But getting a similar process set up in the U.S. may be more challenging.

“One of the problems we have in the U.S. and in California is, most times, you have to transport the batteries a long way, which obviously affects the environmental footprint,” he says.

According to Kohorst, there are only a few single-use battery processing facilities in North America. “They are heavily energy-intensive because they’re heat-based processes and you know, we want there to be, want to promote and develop and see, a recycling framework and infrastructure that’s good for the environment – that it’s the best thing to do.”

The study is currently in the process of peer review, with final results expected before the end of the year.

“We’re finding that it’s difficult to design an environmentally beneficial recycling system in the U.S. because of the limitation in the technologies that we have here, the great distances involved, you know, the very limited intrinsic value in these batteries,” says Kohorst.

“Although, a big factor is whether you can recover things like manganese, zinc […] the greater resource recovery you have, that has a big impact on the footprint. But again, that requires a certain type of process, you know, so it’s very complicated.”

Kohorst also notes that the industry is actively engaged in trying to find solutions that create a net benefit for the environment and will utilize the results of the study to analyze the most effective ways to move forward and create beneficial recycling streams for single-use batteries if possible.

In the meantime, here’s what you should do

Recycling is inherently a complicated process that, once established, can result in serious gains for the environment. And the battery industry is just one of many currently reviewing its overall life cycle footprint to see where cuts and changes can be made to reduce its impact.

So, with the best options still in the air and an industry in heavy research mode, what can you do in the meantime with your batteries?

Taking advantage of the best uses for each type of battery is key to prolonging its usable life. Rechargeables fit best in high-drain devices (Wii remote controllers and digital cameras) where you can recover your additional investment rapidly.

“It only takes five or 10 recharges before you’ve really paid off the charger and the little bit of added cost that there is in a rechargeable battery,” says Iverson. You will also recuperate your money faster in these high-drain devices, because of the comparative number of single-use batteries you would have used in their place. And, depending on the nature of their use, you could recharge these batteries hundreds of times.

“It’s just like using gas in a Ferrari versus a Volkswagen. Those two are going to burn at a completely different rate,” he says. “It’s the same with a high-drain device like a digital camera versus a clock on the wall.”

Slow-drain devices like smoke detectors, the remote control for your television and the like, make better companions for single-use batteries where their chemistry better matches the needs of the device. “The chemistry, the alkaline chemistry, works better in low-drain to medium-drain devices, which are about 80 percent of the devices that are out there,” he adds.

And what about recycling? Kohorst advises: “I would simply say they have to follow the law, and right now, as far as rechargeable batteries, they should be recycled […] On the alkaline side, we’re still looking at the science, and we don’t want to promote any recycling unless we’re 100 percent sure that it’s environmentally beneficial, that it’s the right thing to do. And we’re not sure of that yet.

“People can find places to recycle them, and it’s going to cost them oftentimes, and whether or not it’s actually really at the end of the game environmentally preferable, it’s questionable. But if people want to do it, we say they should do it.”

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Single-Use vs. Rechargeable
The Ultimate Battery Guide
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Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Call2Recycle is one of these partners.

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