Common household batteries come in a variety of types and configurations. They can be generally grouped as Primary and Rechargeable. Primary Batteries are not rechargeable; once the battery’s charge is expended the battery must be recycled or disposed of. Primary Batteries are the most prevalent battery on the market today, and include recognizable units such as Alkaline, Zinc Air and Lithium. Rechargeable Batteries include Nickel Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydride, and Lithium Ion units. All differ in one or more physical aspects and are designed and manufactured to address specific consumer product requirements. For example zinc air batteries have a high rate of discharge which makes them ideal for devices such as hearing aids. Rechargeable batteries are well suited for power tools and similar items as they can be returned to use in relatively short time frames. Unfortunately, the vast majority of household batteries – both Primary and Rechargeable – do not get recycled. And they are ubiquitous in the home and office – in a wide variety of consumer products, – flashlights, toys, radios, tools, digital cameras, cell phones, etc.
The collection infrastructure, especially for Primary Batteries, is almost non-existent in the U.S. Large quantities of primary batteries are manufactured and then discarded after use. Studies have revealed that many households retain or “hoard” old batteries, indicating that households are looking for a recycling option. In the mid-nineties, several battery manufacturers created the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), later renamed Call-to-Recycle, as a voluntary, industry-led initiative to keep rechargeable batteries out of the solid waste stream through recycling. Manufacturers pay a fee to have the RBRC logo on their batteries. These fees pay for the program. Call-to-Recycle provides a no-cost recycling option for consumers through an extensive network of more than 30,000 collection sites throughout North America, such as local transfer stations, town halls, and stores such as Radio Shack and Staples to name just a few.
However, the capture rate is still less than 15% of batteries available for recycling in spite of more than an a decade of experience with rechargeable batteries. Many rechargeable batteries contain toxic metals (cadmium), and valuable metals (nickel). Alkaline batteries, (the largest share of the primary battery market), contain zinc, manganese, and steel, all materials which have value. Currently primary batteries are discarded, going to landfills or in Connecticut, to Waste-to-Energy facilities. Existing recycling options for primary batteries in Connecticut are non-existent or woefully inadequate.
On May 22, 2014 the State of Vermont signed into law H.695 creating the country’s first Product Stewardship law for single use batteries (non-rechargeable) Act 139. Affecting batteries such as alkaline, zinc air, zinc carbon and lithium, it requires producers of primary or single-use batteries to implement a program to recycle or recover their product. Links to this legislation and a summary are below.
In October 2012 the Connecticut Product Stewardship Council along with stakeholders met in Hartford to set product stewardship priorities for our State. Facilitated by the Product Stewardship Institute located in Boston, batteries were determined to be a priority material for legislative consideration. Fortunately, there has been successful experience recycling both Primary and Rechargeable Batteries in Canada and the European Union.
On June 11 and 12 2014, the Product Stewardship Institute facilitated a discussion on battery stewardship in Hartford, at the offices of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. State and local governments, – from as far away as Hawaii. – recyclers, and battery manufacturer representatives were present and provided a robust overview of the problems and opportunities associated with battery collection and recycling. Call2Recycle, formerly called RBRC, has been capturing and recycling rechargeable batteries since the mid 1990s. The effectiveness of this effort, capturing approximately 15% of available spent batteries, and the inherent material differences among battery chemistries, notably between primary (single-use) and rechargeable emerged as important issues. Existing recycling processing facilities are in many cases distant from sources of spent batteries. Primary or single use batteries, especially alkaline, have little recoverable scrap value.
Separating battery types and where that effort would occur was discussed. The operational, management and processing merits of an “all battery” legislative approach was discussed, along with how to ensure their removal and allocation of responsibility and how such an effort would function juxtaposed to Call2Recycle’s current rechargeable program. The recycling of batteries imbedded in products such as toys and medical devices was discussed. Also of interest to the industry was the creation of a level playing field in which all battery manufacturers bore the same responsibility and costs for the end of life management of the batteries they produce.
The battery manufacturers and trade associations, both primary and rechargeable, introduced their own model product stewardship legislation during the conference and provided a working template, along with the discussion of issues and strategies provided by the Product Stewardship Institute and its CEO, Scott Cassel.
1. On March 4th, 2015 Connecticut RB-6957 was published.
7. Industry Model Legislation