Week of 4/30/2006

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that it is now safe to throw away common household batteries and that only rechargeable batteries can now be recycled. Is this true?

—Doug Reynolds, Martinsville, IN

Today’s common household batteries—those ubiquitous AAs, AAAs, Cs, Ds and 9-volts from Duracell, Energizer and others—are not thought to pose as great a threat to properly-equipped modern landfills as they used to because they contain much less mercury than their predecessors. As such most municipalities now recommend simply throwing such batteries away with your trash.

Nevertheless, environmentally concerned consumers might feel better recycling such batteries anyway, as they still do contain trace amounts of mercury and other potentially toxic stuff. Some municipalities will accept these batteries (as well as older, more toxic ones) at household hazardous waste facilities, from where they will most likely be sent elsewhere to be processed and recycled as components in new batteries.

Other options abound, such as the mail-order service, Battery Solutions, which will recycle your spent batteries at a cost of 85 cents per pound. To find a company near you where you can drop off your old batteries for recycling, check out the comprehensive national database at the Earth911.org website. Meanwhile, the national chain, Batteries Plus, is happy to take back disposable batteries for recycling at any of its 255 retail stores from coast-to-coast.

Consumers should note that any old batteries they may find buried in their closets that were made before 1997—when Congress mandated a widespread mercury phase-out in batteries of all types—should most surely be recycled and not discarded with the trash, as they may contain as much as 10 times the mercury of newer versions.

Perhaps of greater concern nowadays is what’s happening to spent rechargeable batteries from cell phones, MP3 players and laptops. Such items contain potentially toxic heavy metals sealed up inside, and if thrown out with the regular garbage can jeopardize the environmental integrity of both landfills and incinerator emissions. Luckily, the battery industry sponsors the operations of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which facilitates the collection of used rechargeable batteries collected in an industry-wide "take back" program for recycling.

Consumers can help by limiting their electronics purchases to items that carry the RBRC logo on their packaging. Furthermore, they can find out where to drop off old rechargeable batteries (and even old cell phones) by calling RBRC’s hotline at 1-800-8BATTERY or by visiting the online drop location finder at RBRC.org. Also, most Radio Shack stores will take back rechargeable batteries and deliver them to RBRC free-of-charge. RBRC then processes the batteries via a thermal recovery technology that reclaims metals such as nickel, iron, cadmium, lead and cobalt, repurposing them for use in new batteries.

CONTACTS: Battery Solutions, www.batteryrecycling.com; Earth911, www.earth911.org; Batteries Plus, www.batteriesplus.com; Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), www.rbrc.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that logging companies have switched their focus from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeastern United States? And what have been the environmental effects?

—David Older, New York, NY

When the logging business began to die down in the Pacific Northwest beginning in the 1980s, timber companies started looking increasingly to the southeastern United States for the wood pulp it would need to satisfy the rapidly expanding global demand for paper. Today, just two decades later, more logging is conducted in the Southeast than anywhere else in the world and Southeast pulpwood is in three quarters of all paper sold in the U.S.

What makes all the logging in the U.S. Southeast so egregious is not so much the sheer amount of wood harvested, but the destruction of biodiversity that the creation of single-species wood plantations in the region has wrought. Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the so-called New World, the Southeast played host to the highest tree species diversity on the continent. But a 2001 study by the U.S. Forest Service found that 40 percent of the region’s formerly diverse native pine forests have been turned into intensively managed single-species pulp plantations designed for maximum yield of wood pulp for making paper.

According to esteemed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, plantation forests are 90 to 95 percent less biologically diverse than natural forests. One problem with this scenario is susceptibility to pests and disease. For instance, the invasive pine bark beetle has thrived across the Southeast as mixed forests have been clear cut and replaced with its favorite delicacy, pulp-friendly loblolly pine. The logging industry has, in turn, used the beetle infestation as an excuse to "salvage-log" much of the timber in the region, including that which has been unaffected by the beetles. The result has been ongoing problems with erosion on forest lands and watershed damage.

The end product of all this activity, postage stamp-sized wood chips, often ends up exported to Japan and used to make toilet paper, says Allen Hershkovitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "Most consumers don’t even think about the fact that toilet paper comes from trees," he adds.

Stemming the tide of biodiversity loss in the region is an uphill battle because 90 percent of the affected forests in the Southeast are on private land. While advocacy groups like NRDC successfully lobbied to limit logging on public lands in the Pacific Northwest, which is partly what drove the industry south, they have had a much more difficult time convincing the more than five million private forestland owners in the Southeast to adopt more environmentally sound practices.

NRDC is working with a coalition of advocacy groups in the region, such as the Dogwood Alliance and ForestEthics, to create public awareness as well as a boycott of tissue made from Southeastern forests. Such boycotts were effective in the past at getting home improvement superstores to limit their procurement of virgin timber from the Pacific Northwest, but it is too early to tell whether such actions can help the ailing forests of the Southeast.

CONTACTS: The Dogwood Alliance, www.dogwoodalliance.org; ForestEthics, www.forestethics.org; Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), www.nrdc.org.