By C.R. Malavika, Research Analyst
Batteries in the modern day world have become ubiquitous, in the sense that they provide energy for a wide range of products that are used across all segments, spanning from households to large industrial enterprises. They are also a major source of backup power for activities that require an uninterruptible supply of power.
According to the City of Richland's Environmental Education Programme, an average person residing in the United States owns about two button batteries, ten disposable alkaline batteries (A, AA, AAA, 9V, etc) and throws away about eight household batteries per year . This might seem to be a very negligible amount of goods that is discarded, but imagine the entire population of the United States (approximately 291 million people, 2003 estimates) throwing away used batteries, or even better, the amount of batteries disposed by the world population (approximately 6 billion according to the 2003 World Population Data Sheet). This would be an insurmountable heap of solid waste with grave environmental effects. For example, Bell Canada, a leading telecom services provider, in its Centralized Collection Programme, collected 960 metric tons of wet cell lead acid batteries for recycling in 2003.
Batteries are mainly categorized as primary (one time use batteries) and secondary (can be recharged and used again). Most of them contain cadmium, lead, mercury, copper, zinc, manganese, lithium, or potassium, which are all hazardous to the environment and also to human health.
Thus, disposal of batteries has come to occupy an extremely significant position in the eyes of battery manufacturers and recycling organizations. Unfortunately, one widely used method is to send them to landfills, although this is definitely not an environment friendly option.
For humans, both lead and cadmium can be taken only by ingestion or inhalation. Mercury another harmful metals can even be absorbed through the skin, although this metal's use in batteries has declined greatly due to laws and regulations that have been put in place (E.g. US Battery Act, 1996) to reduce its content.
These harmful substances permeate into the soil, groundwater and surface water through landfills and also release toxins into the air when they are burnt in municipal waste combustors. Moreover, cadmium is easily taken up by plant roots and accumulates in fruits, vegetables and grass. The impure water and plants in turn are consumed by animals and human beings, who then fall prey to a host of ill-effects. Studies indicate that nausea, excessive salivation, abdominal pain, liver and kidney damage, skin irritation, headaches, asthma, nervousness, decreased IQ in children and sometimes even cancer can result from exposure to such metals for a sufficient period of time.
In addition, potassium, if it leaks, can cause severe chemical burns thereby affecting the eyes and skin. Landfills also generate methane gas leading to the ‘greenhouse effect’ and global climatic changes.
Recycling - A Good Option?
Recycling batteries is a much better option than dumping them in landfills. Some advantages that recycling offers include:
- Saves natural resources
- Saves energy
- Reduces pollution
- Reduces the need for landfill
- Generates income
- Lessens the amount of regulations as it no more falls under the category of hazardous waste
- Reduces imports
Many organizations have been set up and laws have been passed to promote proper disposal and recycling of batteries in order to provide a safer environment. In his book 'Batteries in a Portable World', Isidor Buchmann states that in the United States, 98 percent of all lead acid batteries are recycled, but in North America, only one in six households recycle rechargeable batteries. Developing nations typically pay less attention to this mounting environmental problem as they feel that other issues such as poverty and population explosion are much weighty of a problem and funds tend to appease these problems first.
Some steps that can be taken to reduce or minimize the damage caused to the environment due to improper battery disposal include the following:
- Recycling of used batteries
- Using rechargeable batteries more than primary batteries
- Making collection of batteries from the source easier and cost effective
- Providing appropriate remuneration to consumers for selling the used batteries
- Formulation and implementation of more stringent laws regarding battery disposal
- Buying batteries containing less mercury, lead and cadmium
- Providing complete information to customers at the time of purchase about the battery suitability, safety and ways of disposal.
- More R&D in alternative energy storage devices like fuel cells, which are also less hazardous to the environment.
- Looking at renewable sources of energy like solar, wind, water.
With the ever-growing usage of batteries in today’s times, their disposal issues have come to occupy the center stage due to their deteriorating effects on human health and environment. Much attention needs to be paid to solve this problem especially by developing countries so that a cleaner, greener and healthy world is what we and our future generations get to live in!