© Martin Konopka | Dreamstime

Commingled collection is one key to recycling the myriad small batteries American consumers use today. A second is to get municipalities and legislators involved in boosting programs to recover the tons of AA, A23 and 9-volt batteries landfilled in this country.

While collection programs are available, the political will to mandate them is not. Most consumers are loath to pay to have their batteries recycled, so they trash them.

Research by Call2Recycle, an Atlanta-based battery stewardship organization, shows that collecting all household battery types together is most effective. This eliminates the need for thousands of consumers to figure out which batteries can and cannot be recycled. Experts on the sorting line in recycling facilities straighten that out. But, first, programs need to be instituted.

“Municipal governments are the traditional opinion leaders in waste handling,” says Carl E. Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle. “They communicate waste policy and tell neighborhoods how to handle materials.”

Smith says he wants to see local governments play a more active role in boosting consumer battery recycling.

Call2Recycle has a national program with more than 20,000 collection sites to meet the needs of collection site customers and consumers who want one-stop recycling because of its greater convenience.

Primary batteries often excluded

While recyclers are familiar with collecting commercial batteries and auto or truck lead-acids, somewhere between 80 percent and 90 percent of all batteries used are single-use cells, according to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).

“Intrinsically speaking, there is very little value in the recovery and recycling of dry-cell alkaline batteries,” says Todd Coy, executive vice president of Kinsbursky Bros. Inc., an Anaheim, California, company that specializes in recovering metals from end-of-life batteries and catalytic converters. “For this reason, companies who are engaged in this space must charge a tipping fee to cover the cost of recycling.”

That noted, he adds, “We are constantly looking at ways to improve efficiencies and lower the cost to our customers.”

It is a growing challenge as consumers use more battery-powered items. “Our biggest challenge is the internet of things (IoT),” Smith says. With IoT, batteries are being integrated into more products, including clothing. They also power green-leaning devices, such as light sensors in restrooms and motion sensors in warehouses and homes. They are everywhere.

“It makes collection more difficult,” Smith says.

That trend has prompted several state legislatures to enact battery recycling legislation. Vermont has a broad-based extended producer responsibility (EPR) measure covering single-use batteries and rechargeable nickel-cadmium (NiCad) and sealed lead-acid batteries that has been on the books for two years, while EPR laws are in place for all rechargeable batteries in Minnesota and New York. New Jersey, Maryland, Iowa, Florida and Main have EPR laws that cover rechargeable NiCad and sealed lead-acid batteries.

Other states have considered battery recycling legislation in the last year:

  • Connecticut considered HB 7067. It did not specify batteries, per se, but was a much broader “product stewardship” proposal, almost European in scope. It would have required procedures for collection, storage, transportation, reuse, recycling and disposal of a covered product. No further action was taken, however.
  • Maine held a public hearing on LD 385. After several work sessions by the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, the bill was voted “ought not to pass pursuant to Joint Rule 310, Apr 11, 2017.” The measure was somewhat similar to California’s existing law in that it focused on rechargeable batteries. It included NiCads and small lead-acid batteries.
  • New York had parallel battery measures proposed in the Assembly and the Senate as A-6280 and S-1448, respectively. Similar to Connecticut’s product stewardship concept, New York legislators proposed a specific “product stewardship program for primary (nonrechargeable) batteries.” The Assembly voted in favor of A-6280 April 25, 2017, and the bill was delivered to the Senate. However, no public hearings were scheduled in the Senate, and the session closed without a vote.
  • Texas’s HB 1874 received a public hearing in the Environmental Regulation Committee March 21, 2017. It would cover nonrechargeable 4.5-volt, 9-volt, D, C, AA, AAA, AAAA or A23 batteries and any product that contains or is packed with such a battery. The bill has been left pending in committee since. No further action is anticipated.

Coy says the industry has sponsored pushes to develop dry-cell battery stewardship plans in many states. But with one major exception, virtually no battery waste-related public policy has emanated from Washington. (See “The Universal approach" sidebar.) That responsibility is delegated to the states.

“We need as a catalyst for a major state or two to implement programs to collect and recycle all consumer batteries,” Smith says. It need not be every state—just a couple of bellwether states would get the ball rolling, he says.

According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), household batteries are an environmental hazard. The DTSC list includes AA, AAA, C cells, D cells, NiCads and other rechargeables and button batteries. These contain a corrosive chemical and toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium.

Note that California’s DTSC and most other state regulating agencies do not include car-type batteries as universal waste, a category of materials designated as “hazardous waste” but containing common materials. End-of-life car or truck batteries are typically handled under a different set of regulations.

California regulates single-use dry-cell batteries as hazardous waste, the only state to do so. However, Coy notes, no state-sponsored EPR programs are in place to manage these end-of-life batteries.

“Due to the state’s population, we estimate that California represents the largest source of end-of-life alkaline dry-cell batteries in the U.S.,” Coy says.

In California, retailers who sell rechargeable batteries to consumers must accept and collect those used rechargeable batteries for recycling. Note that under this 2006 law, retailers are not required to take back any other kind of universal waste batteries, though a number do voluntarily take back alkaline batteries and others.

When California drafted its law on recycling rechargeable batteries, it stated that the cost associated with handling, recycling and disposing of used rechargeable batteries is the responsibility of the producers and consumers of rechargeable batteries and not local government or its service providers, state government or taxpayers.

To reduce the likelihood of illegal disposal of hazardous materials, it is the intent of the act to ensure that all costs associated with the proper management of used rechargeable batteries are internalized by the producers and consumers of rechargeable batteries at or before the point of purchase and not at the point of discard.

Vermont takes charge

Vermont is the national leader in broad-based mandated battery recycling. Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, the Green Mountain State was first to require battery manufacturers and producers to finance a collection and recycling program for single-use batteries. Vermont residents are able to recycle household batteries, including AA, AAA, C and D, among other battery types, by bringing them to drop-off locations throughout the state. The program comes at no cost to the state or to its residents.

When the recycling program launched in 2016, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz said, “Vermont is once again demonstrating its environmental leadership. This program makes it easy for all Vermonters to become product stewards by dramatically increasing their rate of battery recycling. Dead batteries no longer have to be buried in a landfill or hoarded in junk drawers.”

Simplicity is key. Vermonters do not have to separate single-use batteries from rechargeable batteries at collection sites.

Call2Recycle plays an essential role in Vermont’s battery recycling efforts. The organization says more than 114,000 pounds of batteries were collected statewide in 2016—a 187 percent increase from the previous year, prior to the legislation that mandated producer financing for single-use battery collection and recycling.

Igniting participation

A couple of things would help boost collection, sources say.

“There has to be a champion in the legislatures who can talk the issues and fight off the opposition’s concern about heavy regulation of business or the perceived threat to industry in the state,” Smith says.

Economics also plays a role. Most collection programs charge a fee to collect and aggregate consumer batteries. “Even if you hand a battery to a processor, it is not economical to recover the zinc,” Smith notes.

Given how common and cheap zinc is, material recovery is not going to be the economic driver.

Coy says the biggest hurdle to effective collection of consumer nonrechargeable batteries is to get people to participate.

“The historical flow of batteries back to recycling has been from industrial and light-commercial industries,” he says.

“A program needs to be structured under the following criteria,” Coy says. “First, it must be free. Second, it must be convenient. Third,” he adds purposely, “it must be free.”

If there is to be a driver in the U.S., it probably will be a municipality’s need to divert material from landfill in areas where tipping fees are high and landfill space is at a premium. The program likely will originate in a state legislature. And it will be free to consumers.

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland who can be contacted at curt@curtharler.com.