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Some batteries excluded: while rechargeable battery recycling is on the increase, alkaline battery recycling remains rare. (Battery recycling).

Ever since Congress enacted the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act in 1996, the recycling of rechargeable batteries has increased.

According to the Atlanta-based Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), the Act streamlines state regulatory requirements for collecting rechargeable nickel-cadmium and lead batteries and encourages voluntary industry programs to recycle them. Rechargeable batteries enjoy an established collection and recycling infrastructure, thanks in part to this government regulation.

Alkaline batteries, however, without the benefit of regulation, flounder when it comes to recycling, as no programs arc dedicated to their collection and recycling. Alkaline batteries do trickle into battery collection programs and can be recycled, but not in significant numbers.

SUCCESS STORY. "We've seen significant growth in terms of people recycling spent batteries," Ralph Millard, executive vice president of the RBRC says. Millard says the group's collection of recyclable batteries increased 12 percent in 2002 to roughly 3.4 million pounds of batteries.

Millard adds, "We have 1,700-plus businesses that are participating and over 700 communities and another 700 public agencies." Those numbers represent an increase on the order of 20 percent from 2002's figures.

In addition, more than 30,000 retail locations have partnered with the RBRC to collect spent rechargeable batteries weighing up to two pounds, Millard says.

Chris Sova, president of Battery Solutions Inc. (BSI), Brighton, Mich., says that Americans are slowly getting into the habit of recycling their spent batteries. In the five cities where Battery Solutions has set up drop-off boxes to collect spent dry cell batteries, collection amounts have increased slowly but steadily over the last four wars, Sova says.

However, recycling of alkaline batteries lags behind other household batteries.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. "There needs to be a greater capacity for recycling for alkaline-type batteries," Sova says. "If you collected all the alkaline batteries that were generated, there wouldn't be enough smelting capacity to recycle all those."

Millard says that there are no real programs in place to collect primary, or alkaline, batteries, "with the exception of programs for hearing aid batteries, generally through retail collection."

Steve Kinsbursky, president of battery operations for Toxco Inc., Anaheim, Calif., says the majority of batteries manufactured are alkaline. However, there are no regulations in force today that promote their recycling. Kinsbursky, who is also the president of Kinsbursky Brothers Inc. (KBI), Anaheim, which is a stakeholder in Toxco, says, "That's a problem."

DRIVING FORCES. Todd Coy, vice president of KBI's battery division, says that two primary forces drive battery recycling, both of which do not apply to alkaline batteries: intrinsic value and legislation or regulation.

With lead acid batteries, Coy says, "You have an intrinsic value that promotes the recycling of that material. It's also promoted through legislation or recycling."

He continues, "With alkaline batteries, there really isn't any added value or intrinsic value to that material, generally speaking. If there is, the metals that are contained there are not sufficient enough to really drive an absolute recycling system." Coy adds, "The only way that you would be able to drive that is through either an industry-sponsored collection activity or through some sort of a regulatory law to get those out of the waste stream into some sort of collection scheme."

While all household batteries are recyclable, the intrinsic value of the materials varies, and sometimes that value does not cover the cost of recycling. "For example, the alkaline battery is approximately 20 percent zinc Kinsbursky says. He notes that in the case of a one-pound battery, if zinc can be sold for 50 cents per pound, the battery has an intrinsic value of just 10 cents in zinc metal. "By the time you go through the recycling process and the treatment process, you have to pay somebody in order to get it recycled," he comments.

Of the nearly 3 billion household batteries sold commercially each year, Kinsbursky says the majority are being thrown away rather than recycled. "And the problem with that was in the past, these batteries contained significant amounts of mercury."

According to the Sierra Club's Web site (, alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries manufactured after 1992 have zero-added mercury by law. Coy says projections indicate that by 2008 nearly all of the mercury-added batteries will have passed through the waste stream.

"Still, people horde batteries [or] throw them into drawers," Kinsbursky says. "You never know when a battery will come out. There are still significant amounts [of mercury-added batteries] hitting the waste stream. The reason we know this is because we are recycling such batteries at our Canadian facility." Kinsbursky is referring to Toxco's processing facility in Trail, British Columbia.

"Although we have a very successful [process] at our Canadian facility where we recycle alkaline batteries and capture the metals ... that doesn't mean that we can get the material into our plant," Kinsbursky says.

People tend to throw away alkaline batteries because an effective or easy way to capture these batteries has yet to be established, Coy says. However, Toxco hopes to change that with the introduction of its Big Green Box program (see the Recycling sidebar "Toxco Begins Battery, E-waste Recycling Program"), which enables consumers to deposit batteries of all kinds, as well as portable electronic devices, in one location.

EFFECTIVE COLLECTIONS. Many battery recycling programs make use of retail collection centers, as they are convenient for consumers and relatively economical.

"It makes a lot of sense for what we manage," Millard says concerning retail collection of rechargeable batteries. "I don't think it works for every type of product."

The reason retail collections work for rechargeable batteries is because they are coming from consumer products at the retail level, Millard says.

"We also think it works well for communities to be involved," he adds. Communities participate through curbside collections and drop-off locations.

Because of the growing concern associated with the cost of recycling at the municipal level, RBRC offers communities and public agencies free access to its rechargeable battery collection and recycling program, including container transportation, Millard says.

RBRC transports the batteries using pre-paid collection containers that are shipped Via UPS in the United States to Inmetco, Ellwood City, Pa., the company that processes the batteries.

"It seems to me that point-of-sale collection is really the most logical step or direction to go in when you're trying to address consumers specifically," Coy says. "I think that point-of-sale collection is really the most efficient means to get the batteries out of the waste stream."

Sova adds that convenience is key to increasing the recycling rate of household batteries. "Convenience is good at retail outlets, if you can get the companies to participate. The more places you have that you can drop the batteries, the better."

BSI also employs workplace collection programs in which employees can drop off batteries generated in the workplace or at home. "That really makes it easy for them, became you're at work everyday, you know the collection is there, and you don't have to go out of your way to take them somewhere," Sova says.

Many of the companies BSI works with employ the company's Pail Mail program. Participating companies select a two-gallon or five-gallon collection and shipping container, holding approximately 25 pounds and 60 pounds respectively. Once full, the companies call BSI to arrange shipping via FedEx ground service. Once the batteries arrive at BSI's facility, the pails are emptied and returned to the participants.

Millard adds that the workplace is becoming increasingly important as a collection point, thanks to the proliferation of cell phones, laptops and two-way radios that are powered by rechargeable batteries. "We're finding it's an excellent opportunity for offices as well as manufacturing locations to put a collection box in place. It's worked very well."

He adds, "Availability, awareness and simplicity are the keys to a successful program." However, increasing public participation also increases shipping costs for the programs.

Sova says, "The more pails that you generate, the more transportation that you have to pay. It gets to the point that if you have a large volume, it's cheaper for us to ship them on a common carrier. When you collect a lot of batteries, you are driving your costs up."

Despite the transportation costs, batteries yield a variety of metals for recovery. Cadmium recovered from rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries is returned to the battery manufacturing process. The nickel recovered from these batteries often goes on to stainless steel producers, Millard says. Sova adds that the steel casings are also recyclable.

Although the RBRC is experiencing success with its rechargeable battery collection and recycling program, the common household alkaline battery will continue to be discarded in the trash as long as financial or regulatory incentives do not exist.

However, Europe may provide a successful example for recycling all household batteries, including alkaline.

"I think they do a much better job of recycling household-type batteries in Europe," Kinsbursky says.

Coy explains, "It is a collection scheme that is really driven by the various EU (European Union) members. They require the collection of batteries, but they also require a standard, being that they want to reach a certain percentage of collection. They really drive that forward."

Kinsbursky adds, "They help the collection scheme, and help recyclers with tipping fees and things of that nature. It seems that it's more important to them."


Toxco has introduces The Big Green Box pre-paid collection program for batteries and portable


Recycling of lead-acid batteries, such as those found in automobiles, is well established, with many states mandating a take-back system at the point of purchase. According to Battery Council International, Chicago, the recycling rate for lead-acid batteries was 93.3 percent as of 1999. The typical new lead-acid battery now contains from 60 percent to 80 percent recycled lead.

But those encouraging figures don't necessarily translate to increased secondary lead pricing.

"Pricing will probably get a little better- emphasis on the `little,'" one industry source says.

He points to financial challenges that are interfering with the operation of lead smelters and mentions the bankruptcy of Exide Technologies, Princeton, N.J., a recycler and manufacturer of lead-acid batteries, as a key factor.

Because other companies shy away from companies in bankruptcy, a surplus of raw materials is on the market, he says, which keeps a lid on price increases.

Although there have been some price increases, they have been lessened by the Exide bankruptcy. "If Exide wasn't bankrupt, prices may have gone higher, because they probably would have been operating more to capacity," he says.

He adds that Exide has lost a fair amount of battery production because of its financial challenges and the agressive behavior of other battery companies.

While the abnormally cold and snowy winter in the Northeast and upper Midwest has helped generate junk batteries for recycling, the situation in the Rocky Mountains and West Coast has tempered the overall effect, he says. Despite this nationwide balance in total generation, secondary raw material is available.

The author is assistant editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted via e-mail at
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Comment:Some batteries excluded: while rechargeable battery recycling is on the increase, alkaline battery recycling remains rare. (Battery recycling).
Author:Toto, Deanne
Publication:Recycling Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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