Part 2: The Inside Scoop on Batteries
Batteries are kind of mystifying to me. My flashlight does nothing until I put a battery inside. Then, suddenly, there’s light. The same is true of my digital camera. No battery, no picture. And my watch? Without a battery, time stands still. The magic doesn’t happen until I put in just the right battery in just the right way. But how? What allows a battery to give “life” to inanimate objects?
At first look, the answer isn’t very complicated. It starts with an understanding of the basics of electric circuits. Simple enough. Now add in a bit of chemistry. Here’s where the magic really begins. For a complete understanding of the inner workings of batteries, check out HowStuffWorks.com.
As it turns out, batteries contain some pretty nasty stuff. Warnings on the plastic wrapper and packaging caution consumers not to put a battery into fire, not put it in backward or, with 9 volt batteries, not even to carry one in your pocket. Sounds like you need to call out the HazMat team every time a battery wears out.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) divides batteries into three categories. Each type uses different chemicals to create a charge. Some batteries can be recycled, some cannot. Some are downright deadly, if you come into contact with their contents. While the information below is drawn from reputable sources, it’s important to check your own state’s rules about battery recycling and disposal. Recycling rules for lead-acid batteries are available from the Battery Council International. The EPA also provides state-by-state universal waste guidelines that may provide additional information.
Lead-Acid Automotive Batteries
The transportation industry accounts for most lead-acid battery use: cars, snowmobiles (snow machines, for those of you from Alaska), motorboats, all-terrain vehicles, golf carts, motorbikes, and motorcycles. The lead and sulfuric acid contained within these wet batteries are highly toxic. Fortunately, almost 90 percent of the 99 million car batteries sold each year are later recycled. (Makes you wonder about the other 10 percent, doesn’t it?)
In the recycling process, lead-acid batteries are crushed, then separated into small pieces. Typically, a car battery contains 1 pound of sulfuric acid and 18 pounds of lead. In the recycling process, the lead is purified, and the plastic is separated from the other materials. Both the plastic pieces and purified lead are then shipped to processing plants, where they’re re-used to make more batteries and other products. If you followed the manufacturing of a typical lead-acid battery, you’d find that recycled plastic and lead account for 60 to 80 percent of the finished product.
Non-Automotive Lead-Based Batteries
Lead is also used in sealed lead-acid batteries, absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries, and gel-type batteries. You’ll find these used most often in industrial equipment, alarm systems, industrial refrigeration units, and emergency lighting. Sealed lead-acid batteries are quite heavy, and are best used in stationary units or units on wheels that won’t tip over (like motorized wheelchairs). Even though they’re sealed, they can leak if they’re not handled properly. The advantage of gel-type batteries is that the gelled acid forms a solid mass that won’t spill. Similarly, AGM batteries won’t leak, even if the case is broken. None of these should go to the landfill; lead and sulfuric acid inside these battery types are hazardous wastes.
Alkaline batteries purchased in the U.S., Japan, or Europe after 1993 no longer contain mercury, so they may be placed in the trash; but you’ll want to recycle them if at all possible. These batteries are common in radios, toys, flashlights, smoke detectors, garage door openers, electronic games, and more. Alkaline batteries are available in either rechargeable or disposable types.
Button-cell batteries contain heavy metals, such as mercury, lithium, cadmium, and silver. They are commonly recycled, both because of the hazardous materials they contain and because they are small in size and easy to handle. These batteries are frequently used to power small cameras, hearing aids, watches, musical greeting cards, toys, and calculators. In addition to being toxic, they are a choking hazard for small children, babies, and pets. While storing button-cell batteries prior to disposal, you may want to put them into a sealed plastic bag out of reach of children.
Carbon zinc batteries are non-rechargeable. They are not considered to be hazardous and may be disposed of in the landfill, but recycling is recommended. These general-purpose batteries are often found in many of the same devices as alkaline batteries, including electronic games, calculators, flashlights, lanterns, smoke detectors, radios, and garage door openers. Carbon zinc batteries are not available as button-cell batteries.
All rechargeable batteries should be recycled, though only some are considered hazardous. Those include nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) and small sealed lead-acid or gel-type (non-automotive) batteries. Non-hazardous rechargeable batteries contain lithium ion (Li-Ion) or nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH). Rechargeable batteries can be found in a myriad of small to mid-sized devices, including laptop computers, cordless phones, cell phones, camcorders, and two-way radios.
Most of us have long been afraid to throw batteries out for fear of polluting the landfill, but we haven’t known what to do with them. So we’ve hung onto them, often forgetting we even have them. It’s easy to overlook a small battery in a pile of other stuff. After all, the plastic-wrapped cylinders or button-type discs seem innocuous enough, unless you stop to think about their contents.
Maybe you have a “junk drawer,” where odd nails, screws, and parts of various devices end up while waiting for repair. If so, dig through it. Look for loose batteries that have outlived their usefulness. Scan your desk and your dresser. Look in your toolbox. There are dozens of places batteries might be lying around. They have a way of turning up in the most unexpected places. I found one tossed in with old costume jewelry just yesterday. (Don’t bother to ask; I have no idea.)
And don’t forget those musical greeting cards that are becoming so popular. The button-type batteries inside them aren’t nearly as pleasant as the songs they play. Many people like to keep greeting cards from loved ones, and that’s just fine. But once the music stops, and the card no longer plays, pull out the battery and save it for recycling. The danger is in forgetting you have it at all, then tossing it in the trash when you get tired of hanging onto the card.
You’ve probably seen what happens to some batteries when left in a flashlight or camera too long. Just like an old car battery (see the photo above), chemicals leak out, and corrosion builds up, presenting a danger to anyone who touches them. (Not to mention the mess they make.) Check your flashlights, your kids’ toys (and your own electronic toys and gadgets), old calculators, and cameras — anything battery-operated that you don’t use very often.
Then start a collection in your home or workplace. Seal dead batteries in a plastic bag and put them where no child can get to them. Don’t worry, you won’t have to hang onto them forever. Check out Finding a Battery Recycler to learn where to send spent batteries after their short, but useful, lives.
Part 1: Much Ado about Batteries
Part 2: The Inside Scoop on Batteries
Part 3: Finding a Battery Recycler
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