How do I recycle or safely dispose of used batteries?

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

How do I recycle or safely dispose of used batteries?

—Tom Shamrell, Brattleboro, VT

Unfortunately, most of the more than 750 million alkaline batteries sold each year to power our cameras, flashlights and Discmans are landfilled and incinerated, not recycled. The chemicals in these batteries—particularly cadmium—present a major health hazard if they leak from their corroded metal jackets. Cadmium is a probable human carcinogen, and it can also affect kidney and lung function.

Several states, including Maine, Vermont and Florida, have passed legislation prohibiting incineration and landfilling of mercury-containing and lead-acid batteries, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Product Stewardship. Regardless of your home state’s attitude on batteries, you should contact your town’s solid waste office to see if there are any planned Hazardous Waste Collection Days. Batteries awaiting recycling should be stored separately from other hazardous materials in a cool and dry area.

Or take advantage of some of the increasingly popular national battery recycling programs. Since 1989, 13 states have adopted laws (including battery labeling requirements) to encourage the collection and recycling of used rechargeable batteries. In 1996, Congress passed the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act, which helps facilitate the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation’s (RBRC) nationwide take back program. According to RBRC, some rechargeable batteries can go through 1,000 cycles. RBRC recycles million of batteries each year, collecting used batteries from more than 30,000 depositories in the U.S. and Canada, many at large retailers such as Home Depot, Best Buy and Target. The RBRC collects only nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride, lithium ion and small sealed-lead batteries.

The Big Green Box battery-recycling program provides consumers, companies and government agencies with a simple method for recycling both batteries and portable electronic devices (cellphones, cameras, calculators and laptops) without having to drive to a recycling center. You prepay for a sturdy cardboard box (the consumer version is $58) that will hold up to 40 pounds of recyclables. The cost of the box includes all shipping, handling and recycling fees. You keep the box handy, filling it with old batteries and equipment as you go—and simply ship it to The Big Green Box address when it’s full.

CONTACT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Product Stewardship, Office of Solid Waste, (800) 424-9346, www.epa.gov/epr/products/batteries.html; Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, (678) 419-9990, www.rbrc.org; The Big Green Box, (714) 879-2067, www.biggreenbox.com.