Environment | Sustainability | Ecotrope

What Happens To Recycled Batteries?

Ecotrope | April 4, 2013 4:05 p.m. | Updated: April 4, 2013 7:26 p.m.

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This is OPB's battery recycling bin. What happens to its contents?

This is OPB's battery recycling bin. What happens to its contents?

Earlier today, a Portland company unveiled a new way for people to use rechargeable batteries instead of the alkaline ones that you toss out after a single use.

Bettery Inc. is rolling out its rechargeable battery dispensers in five Whole Foods grocery stores across the Northwest. The company’s vending machines allow customers to buy sets of four rechargeable AA and AAA batteries and swap out the drained batteries once they’re spent.

They also collect used alkaline batteries for recycling: What happens to those batteries?

Well, first off, they’re in the minority among used-up alkaline batteries. Most end up in landfills.

Metro’s recycling manager Andy Sloop said his agency collects 90,000 pounds of single-use batteries per year for recycling from a Portland-area drop-off sites. Meanwhile, a garbage composition study concluded households in the metropolitan area sent 660,000 pounds of batteries to landfills in 2009.

If you recycle your alkalines in Portland, Sloop said, they are likely headed to a place in Seattle that makes rebar. Your contribution helps avoid the toxins and greenhouse gases that would have come from extracting additional raw materials to make that metal.

And that’s nice, he said, “but reusing is better – much better. You get hundreds of times the environmental benefit if you reuse versus recycle.”

Bettery CEO Charles Kawasaki wants to reduce the environmental impact of batteries by selling swappable rechargeable batteries in grocery store vending machines. The machine would also collect used alkaline batteries.

Bettery CEO Charles Kawasaki wants to reduce the environmental impact of batteries by selling swappable rechargeable batteries in grocery store vending machines. The machine would also collect used alkaline batteries.

Bettery

If you drop your used alkaline batteries off at one of the Bettery vending machines, it will be collected by the recycler Total Reclaim and consolidated with batteries collected from all over Oregon and Washington.

Craig Lorch, co-owner of Total Reclaim, said sorting the newer alkaline batteries from the potentially hazardous lithium ion and nickel cadmium batteries, as well as the pre-1996 alkaline batteries that were made with mercury, is a big part of his company’s recycling process.

“You have to be pretty careful because they all start to look alike after a while,” he said. “Something that could be desirable becomes a contaminant in an uncontrolled environment.”

Once they’re separated, the alkaline batteries are sent in a 55-gallon drum to the Nucor steel mill in Seattle, where “they pick it up with a magnet and drop straight into the furnace,” he said.

One destination for recycled batteries is a Seattle steel mill that makes rebar.

One destination for recycled batteries is a Seattle steel mill that makes rebar.

chrisbulle/Flickr

What comes out is often rebar or angle iron, said Lorch, but the batteries don’t contribute much in the grand scheme of things and Total Reclaim doesn’t make money on the deal.

“The steel mill is able to get rid of them at a low cost,” he said. “They take it at the door and say ‘thank you,’ but this is still kind of a pilot program. Other mills aren’t engaged in it.”

If the batteries didn’t go to the mill, they’d likely be shredded by another recycler and sold to a steel mill.

There’s a question looming over all of this, Sloop said: Should Oregon and Washhington make the battery companies responsible for recycling their products? There has been legislation proposing programs much like the existing requirements for electronics manufacturers. They haven’t passed yet, but they could be a game-changer if they do.

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