Keeping Batteries Out of the Trash

Beginning on December 5, 2011, New York residents are required to recycle their rechargeable batteries—including cell phone, digital camera and rechargeable alkaline batteries—or pay a fine. The law was signed by Gov. David Patterson last year, and also mandates that retailers that sell rechargeable batteries must accept them back from their customers for recycling purposes. The fines for state residents for rechargeables found in the trash start at $50 for the first offense, $100 for a second within 12 months of the first, and $200 for the third or more offenses within a year of the first.

New York is not the first state to get serious about battery recycling—California began addressing the toxic problem of tossed batteries on February 9, 2006 under its Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act. According to the group Californians Against Waste, the mandate prohibiting batteries from the solid waste stream and requiring manufacturers to take back spent batteries was put in place to address the hazardous chemicals leaked by these batteries that pose known dangers to the environment and human health. They write: “Batteries, specifically, contain cadmium, lead, potassium hydroxide, and a host of other toxic constituents that can cause irreparable reproductive disorders as well as kidney, liver and neurological dysfunctions.” A measure that would have given consumers a 10-cent return on spent batteries modeled after the state’s Bottle and Can recycling law would have gone further in encouraging battery recycling and generated funds for more recycling stations, but that effort failed to generate the votes needed to pass.

But even California’s existing law has yielded impressive results. According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, over 7.1 million pounds of rechargeable batteries were collected from consumers in 2010, including about 1,000,000 of nickel cadmium batteries and 5,100,000 of small lead acid batteries. There has, the agency notes, been a decline in recycling however—in 2009, 8 million pounds of batteries were collected for recycling in California. But because detailed reporting has not been required of battery handlers or recyclers, it’s challenging for the agency to get an accurate picture.

New York’s now enforceable Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act drew some groans from commenters on one website with many convinced it would lead to people tossing their batteries in the woods or alongside roadways to avoid a fine. At least one commenter suggested the same tactic that failed to pass in California: provide a refund as an incentive for consumers to turn batteries in.

It’s fairly widely acknowledged that such a law will be difficult to enforce. “You don’t have garbage police, you don’t have municipalities or private haulers rummaging through people’s garbage bags and saying, ‘You’re not allowed to throw this out,'” Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate for New York Public Interest Research Group, told But with fines of up to $5,000 for retailers who don’t comply, the law’s true intent seems focused on getting manufacturers and retailers to take some responsibility in the collection and proper disposal of their toxic products.