Feature

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?

batteries

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."

Wasted space

But often landfill is exactly where batteries end up. Regulations governing battery disposal differ in each state.

In Western Australia, both disposable and rechargeable batteries are classed as hazardous waste; they are placed in steel drums encased in concrete within secure landfills so that air and water can't corrode the battery casings.

In Queensland, by comparison, people throw batteries in the bin with impunity.

The only batteries currently recycled in Australia are the lead-acid batteries that power our cars and trucks; more than 90 per cent are recycled. But moves are underway to establish household battery recycling.

In Melbourne, a free recycling service for household batteries began in June 2007. A joint initiative of Government body Sustainability Victoria, management group Cleanaway and battery manufacturer Uniross, Batteryback provides containers at selected shops where people can drop off their dead batteries.

Sustainability Victoria project manager Liz Richmond says the service began as a three-month trial but will most likely extend to 12 months.

"We are trying to demonstrate that a retail-based battery collection initiative can actually work."

She says the program is stockpiling alkaline batteries to provide sufficient material for a future recycling service in Australia, while Ni-Cds are shipped to France where the useful metals are extracted and reused.

Rechargeables

Part of the reason for Australia's lackadaisical attitude toward recycling Ni-Cd's, according to Uniross' Will Vautier, is that our rechargeable market is still very small compared to Europe's. He believes nothing substantial has been done to promote rechargeables in Australia.

"The main players are interested in disposables," he says.

In 2007, Uniross commissioned the first worldwide study that compared disposable batteries with Ni-MH rechargeables.

In the study, the French company Bio Intelligence Service examined all the impacts of the batteries from raw materials through to disposal or reuse.

It found that for each kilowatt-hour of energy produced, rechargeable batteries have up to 32 times less impact on the environment than disposables. And this included potential impacts on the soil from the disposal of nickel.

The largest supplier of single-use batteries in Australia, the US global giant Energizer Holdings Inc, says it is more concerned with the environmental impacts of collecting batteries for recycling than the impacts of the batteries in landfill.

Graeme Clench, marketing director for Energizer in Australia, points to a 2004 UK Department of Trade and Industry analysis of the life cycle of batteries. It concluded that while recycling does make good use of metals, these benefits are outweighed by the environmental impacts of collection and transport.

The future

Sanyo is taking a slightly different tack. National service manager John Gillam says the company, which is a member of ABRI, recycles batteries in Japan.

Aside from battery recycling, Sanyo has also devised a new kind of rechargeable. The company hopes its 'eneloop' battery will bridge the divide between disposables and rechargeables.

Until now, rechargeable batteries have been sold in a discharged state because a charged battery would slowly discharge itself anyway.

"One major disadvantage of the rechargeable was it wasn't ready to use [immediately]," Gillam says. "Eneloop overcomes that issue. The technology allows it to hold its charge while on the shelf." And even Sanyo donates five cents from every eneloop sale to Clean Up Australia.

Darryl Moore, a resource recovery consultant based in Newcastle, NSWsays a user-pays system would bolster recycling. He belives a levy of a few cents when batteries are purchased could go towards establishing a recycling program to keep them out of landfill.

"In all funding schemes overseas, a levy on the purchase of batteries is present," he says. "One or two cents on average per battery could fund recycling."

Moore is also the development manager for AusBatt, a battery recycling initiative of AusZinc Metals & Alloys. AusZinc recovers and recycles zinc from galvanizing operations and other industries. It has developed a process that will enable the recycling of alkaline batteries.

According to Moore, rechargeable battery recycling is not currently feasible in Australia because of the small volume of rechargebles used.

Moore says many people don't understand the significance of different battery chemistries, and will try to recycle hazardous types that, for now, contaminate the process. He thinks the solution is a recycling scheme that gathers all batteries then sorts them out. "Unless you collect all [battery types], you won't have a successful program," he says.