Hazardous Waste or Not?
The widely held belief that batteries should categorically be brought
to Household Hazardous Waste collections for proper disposal needs some
fine-tuning. Today, the battery types that continue to require special
disposal are: rechargeable nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) and nickel metal hydride
(NiMH) batteries, small sealed and automotive lead acid batteries, and
lithium, mercuric oxide, silver oxide batteries. [Applications
powered by these batteries]
It is the heavy metal content of batteries that causes concern. While
in the battery, the heavy metals pose little risk. The problem comes upon
disposal. When landfilled or incinerated, the heavy metals could leach
out into soil or water, or escape in smokestack emissions or leach out
from ash, respectively. The metals of concern here are cadmium, lead,
mercury, and nickel. Exposure to any of these can lead to serious health
complications, often fatal, to humans. And, they can be generally toxic
to the environment as well.
The alkaline and heavy-duty (zinc carbon) batteries, both non-rechargeable
and rechargeable, found in general household use can be safely disposed
of in the regular trash if they were purchased after mid-1996. This was
not always the case, as these batteries contained mercury. The removal
of mercury from battery "ingredients" is an example of how a
manufacturing industry responded to environmental concerns.
In the early to mid-1990's, individual states -- Maryland among them
-- began enacting legislation requiring recycling of certain batteries
and limiting the mercury content of others. At the same time, "mercury-free"
batteries began to appear on store shelves. In May 1996, the Federal Battery
Bill, also known as the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management
Act was signed.
This Act stipulates that all alkaline manganese and zinc carbon batteries
(conventional flashlight batteries, for example) sold after that date
contain no more than 25 mg per cell. This figure refers to mercury added
to the battery formulation; some battery ingredients contain very low
amount of mercury themselves. The sale of button cell mercuric-oxide batteries
is prohibited altogether. Other mercuric-oxide batteries cannot be sold
unless the manufacturer identifies a collection site for the spent batteries
and informs the customer of this site.
Ni-Cd and certain small sealed lead acid (SSLA) batteries now have to
meet a labeling requirement and be easily removable from consumer products.
The Act also paved the way for the recycling of these batteries, in part
by easing hazardous waste transportation regulations that had acted as
barriers to recycling for batteries. (It was recognized that batteries
don't have quite the "nastiness" factor that is inherent in
many other materials classified as hazardous.)
Additionally, both the US EPA and battery manufacturers and sellers were
charged with educating the public about the need for Ni-Cd and SSLA battery
recycling, and about how to participate in recycling programs for these
Once received at a recycling facility, both kinds of batteries are ground
up for further processing. In the case of lead acid batteries, the cases
(usually made of polypropylene) are turned into new battery cases. The
lead grids, oxides, and other lead parts are melted together and used
to make lead plates and parts for new batteries. The sulfuric acid has
one of two fates. Either it is neutralized, treated, and then released
into a public sewer system or it is converted to sodium sulfate, which
is used in laundry detergent as well as glass and textile manufacturing.
Ni-Cd batteries are handled similarly. After shredding, cadmium is extracted
and used in making new batteries. The nickel and iron are applied to the
production of stainless steel products.
Batteries requiring special disposal
The following battery types, followed by their most common applications,
should continue to be taken to Household Hazardous
Waste collections or other battery recycling collections.
computer memory and real time clock backup, electronic counters, process
controllers, portable instruments, time/data protection, industrial controls,
electronic gas, water and electric meters, communication equipment, watches,
protection of control parameter memory, portable electronic devices
cameras, data terminals, FAX and POS memory, hobby remote controls, notebook
PCs, portable phones, transceivers, portable printers, portable TVs, CD
and tape players, power tools, vacuum cleaners, shavers, security lights,
Nickel metal hydride:
car telephones, cameras, cellular mobile telecom products, notebook PC's,
personal digital assistants, portable VCRs, TVs, portable stereos and
CD players, cordless vacuum cleaners, applications where high-energy and
small size are critical
Small sealed lead acid:
communication equipment, office equipment, security systems, power tools,
toys, UPS systems
digital watches, calculators, portable medical devices, hearing aids
(often replaced with zinc air batteries), remote telemetry devices, continuous
digital watches, calculators, portable medical devices, remote telemetry
devices, continuous power-on devices