Your Battery Questions Answered

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Editor’s Note: Get involved in rechargeable battery recycling this week with Call2Recycle. The organization is working to recycle 1 million pounds of batteries by Oct. 1 – learn more about what you can do.

We talk about batteries a lot – from recycling and disposal to brand-spanking-new technology powered by rechargeable batteries.

Mercury was phased out of certain types of batteries in conjunction with the "Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act," passed in 1996. (Stock Photo)

And since Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries every year, we knew it was a safe bet that our readers had their own battery quandaries. So, you asked, and we answered.

1. The rules of hazardous

Q: What measures does the industry follow to keep batteries classified as a universal waste and not fall into a category of hazardous waste?

A: The important thing to understand in this case is the difference between universal waste and hazardous waste. Hazardous waste is divided into listed wastes: characteristic and universal.

Characteristic represents those wastes that are not specifically listed, but have characteristics of ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity and toxicity. Universal wastes are streamlined hazardous wastes – batteries, pesticides and mercury-containing equipment and bulbs. Universal waste is federally controlled, while hazardous waste programs are usually mandated on a state level.

These universal waste laws are put in place in order to ease the regulatory burden on retail stores and others that wish to collect these wastes and encourage the development of municipal and commercial programs to reduce the quantity of these wastes going to municipal solid waste landfills or combustors.

In order to create streamlined collection standards, the U.S. EPA has set strict guidelines for disposal, labeling and handling universal waste batteries under its 40 CFR part 273.

Because batteries fall under the universal waste category, retailers are more willing to accept them for recycling as the laws are not as strict as those materials classified as hazardous. Take paint for example: While retailers may sell it in-store, they are unwilling to accept the leftovers for recycling because the process is intricate due to heavily mandated disposal requirements.

2. Tossing single-use in the trash

Q: I took all of my used AA and AAA batteries to Batteries Plus for recycling, and they told me that these kinds of batteries can go in the trash. Is that right?

A: This is typically a common recommendation and is legal due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed in 1996 that phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries.

So, today, there is no toxic metal in single-use batteries. However, there is still a chance of acid leakage. To avoid this, put your single-use batteries in a plastic bag before disposing.

On average, each person in the United States discards eight dry-cell batteries per year. (Stock Photo)

3. Spending money to recycle

Q: I want to know where to recycle single-use alkaline batteries and why it costs so much money. People don’t want to pay to recycle batteries.

A: Currently, California is the only state that requires all batteries (both single-use and rechargeable) to be recycled.

To put it simply, most states cannot make a case for mandated recycling because there is little value in materials recovered from single-use alkaline batteries. Manganese, the metal used in these batteries, does not fetch a high enough market value to cover the hard costs of recycling the battery.

But keep in mind that single-use batteries are wholly recyclable, and when collected in large quantities, may be worth the small up-front fee consumers have to pay for the recycling kit.

4. The button-cell dilemma

Q: Why is it illegal to toss button-cell batteries, and where can they be recycled?

A: Also known as silver oxide batteries, button-cell batteries have mercury, making recycling a requirement. These types of batteries are most commonly found in wristwatches, hearing aids and calculators – all of which are “slow drain” electronics. This makes the demand a lot lower for recycling. Also, because they are not rechargeable, they are not covered under Call2Recycle’s battery recycling program.

On the bright side, these batteries have an extremely long life, and replacing them is a perfect opportunity to recycle when you purchase. Most retailers that offer battery replacement for button-cell goods will recycle the spent battery if you’re purchasing or replacing a new battery at that retailer.

5. Better battery life

Q: What are some things consumers can do to prolong the life of batteries?

A: There are several, small tweaks to your daily interaction with your electronics that can noticeably prolong the life of your battery.

For laptop computers (which typically use lithium-ion batteries), avoid using your computer, well, on your lap. Near the battery is a small fan that runs to avoid the overheating of the computer. When this fan gets muddled with dust and lint from clothing, bedding or other materials, the fan has to run harder, using more battery life. Laptops perform best when actually used on a desk (how ironic is that?).

For cell phone batteries, the quickest drain is forcing usage when the reception is low. If you only see one bar, it may not be the best time to update your Facebook status.

Other tips for maximizing general rechargeable battery life include never leaving them in the charger while fully charged; let the discharged battery cool to room temperature before charging and recharge batteries only when they are close to being fully discharged.

We have also heard that because rechargeable batteries have a high leakage rate, storing them in your refrigerator or freezer once they are charged will decrease their drain.

6. State battery disposal laws

Q: Why do disposal laws vary state by state, and how can you find out what your state requires?

A: Disposal laws vary state to state due to budgetary regulations set forth by the local government. Instituting state-wide legislation requires extensive time, work and funding.

While battery disposal is covered under a federal regulatory system for universal wastes, states can modify the universal waste rule and add additional universal waste(s) in individual state regulations so check with your state for the exact regulations that apply.

Currently, Nine states have banned Nickel-cadmium batteries from landfills. In these states, all end users are prohibited from throwing these batteries into the trash and must send them for recycling/proper disposal.

To find out the disposal requirements for your state, use Call2Recycle’s state guide for recycling laws and regulations.

7. Single-use versus rechargeable

Q: What electronics are best for using rechargeable batteries? Is it better to use single-use in others?

A: Cost is a huge factor in this case. Single-use alkaline batteries also store well and lose only about 2 percent of their charge per year and work best in slow-drain devices, such as TV remotes, smoke detectors and wall clocks. So, spending the extra buck for rechargeables may not pay off in these cases.

Rechargeable batteries can be recharged up to 1,000 times, so these work best in high-tech gadgets that will need portable power on a regular basis, such as digital cameras, power tools or hand-held gaming devices.

8. Getting everyone else on board

Q: How can I get my community/school/office to recycle batteries? What are the best ways to collect them?

A: Americans use an average of six portable electronics per day – those batteries can really add up! What’s more concerning is that a whopping 61 percent of consumers discard their rechargeable batteries.

However, battery recycling is at an all-time high. According to Call2Recycle, battery recycling collection saw a 6.9 percent increase, and Call2Recycle collected 6.1 million pounds of rechargeable batteries in 2009.

Anyone can get a bin for recycling rechargeable batteries from Call2Recycle. Place that bin in a common area of your office, classroom or home and spread the word about recycling rechargeable batteries.

For both single-use and rechargeables, the 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.

Related articles
The Ultimate Battery Guide
Get The Most Out of Your Battery
Single-Use vs. Rechargeable Batteries
It’s On! The Call to Recycle 1 Million Pounds of Batteries

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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