Taking charge of battery waste

G Magazine

They may seem small, but churning through batteries adds up to a lots of hazardous waste. So what can you do to lessen the environmental impact?


Credit: iStockphoto

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Laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, multiple remote controls scattered across the coffee table - we have become technology gluttons.

If a gadget doesn't produce sound, light and movement to make our lives easier, well, forget it. The dark side to all this high-powered fun, though, is our massive consumption of batteries.

In Australia, we don't make our own batteries. So the ones we use travel a long way to get here, only to be thrown out after a short life.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we imported 267 million single-use batteries and 50 million rechargeable batteries in 2004 - that's excluding batteries in cordless power tools or portable electronics.

Ironically, we also export the raw materials to battery-manufacturing countries. But the greatest environmental concern surrounding batteries is the impact they have at the end of their lives.

Australia hasn't embraced battery recycling - some 94 per cent of dead batteries end up in landfill - and this is where the most serious problems start.

A chemical cocktail

Sliding a battery into its neat little space in a gadget completes an electrical circuit. When the ends connect with their contacts, chemicals inside the battery start to react; this produces an electrical current as the negative charges migrate to the positive end, and hey-presto, your pink bunny starts beating his drum.

Batteries use a variety of chemicals to power their reactions. Single-use or 'primary' household batteries are largely made up of iron, manganese and zinc.

Rechargeable or 'secondary' varieties need more complicated chemical reactions to reverse the current, so they generally include lithium, nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) and nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd).

It's these last two chemicals - nickel and cadmium - that cause the most trouble. University of Sydney associate professor in soil science, Balwant Singh, says they are carcinogenic to humans and harmful to the environment.

"They are extremely toxic, especially cadmium, and can cause damage to soil micro-organisms and affect the breakdown of organic matter."

Singh says exposure to cadmium can also cause irreversible damage to kidneys and lungs in people. "Nickel-cadmium batteries should not go into landfill."

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