Image: Rechargeable batteries
Image courtesy Call2Recycle
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updated 9/16/2010 12:39:10 PM ET 2010-09-16T16:39:10

The wireless world we live in runs on batteries.

That fancy smart phone is nothing more than a few ounces of dead weight in your pocket without a charged battery. That iPod can’t utter a sound when its battery drains the last drop. Even laptop power cords feel like restrictive leashes, holding us back from joining the mobile mayhem.

But are we paying a high environmental price for all of this battery-operated convenience?

“Rechargeable batteries can contain metals that may be harmful to the environmental if not disposed of properly,” said Carl Smith, CEO of Call2Recycle, a rechargeable battery collection program operated by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. “So, it’s better to keep them out of landfills.”

Since Congress passed the Mercury-Containing Battery Management Act in 1996, most disposable alkaline batteries contain little or no mercury. As a result, they’re considered nontoxic enough to toss out with the household trash.

Rechargeable batteries are greener on the production end since they last for hundreds of cycles over many years. However, the toxic metals required to make them — cadmium, cobalt, lead — aren’t kind to the Earth.

When rechargeable batteries degrade in landfills, heavy metals can taint the surrounding air, topsoil and groundwater, eventually getting inside our bodies.

For that reason, Call2Recycle and similar programs are working to train consumers to recycle their cell phone, laptop, digital camera and other rechargeable batteries. Those heavy metals can actually be reused to make more batteries, reducing the need to mine for new resources.

“We recycle every bit of the batteries we collect, regardless of chemistry, and use their byproducts to make new products, including batteries and stainless steel items,” Smith said.

In fact, since its environmental footprint has become a major concern within the battery industry, researchers have begun searching for alternative materials to fuel the electrochemical cells.

“We take into account environmental impact because there is, to a significant degree, a battery recycling industry out there, [and] there are now conferences that deal with nothing but environmental impact and recycling of used batteries,” said Elton Cairns, a rechargeable battery and fuel cell expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

“So that’s very much an industrial concern and a concern for many researchers in choosing the electrode materials and the electrolytes that they study and develop.”

For example, phosphate materials are starting to show up in more lithium-ion batteries that power devices including laptops and cell phones. The phosphate serves as a substitute for heavy metal nickel and cobalt elements. 

But substituting toxic battery components for gentler ones isn’t always an equal energy trade-off, which is a major reason why creating “green batteries” is a tough proposition.

“Phosphate-based materials, though safer and more environmentally benign, are at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to the oxide-based materials in terms of specific energy,” Cairns told Discovery News.

Without an eco-friendlier alternative to batteries, recycling rechargeables is the best way consumers can prevent those heavy metals from leeching into the environment and help green the battery production cycle.

Cairns points to the success of recycling programs in the automotive battery industry. Lead-acid car batteries are one of the most commonly recycled rechargeables, which has not only kept lead out of the waste stream but also reduced the demand for lead mining since around 80 percent of the lead in the new car batteries is a recycling byproduct.

By doing the same with the smaller lithium-ion, button cell and nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries in our household products and portable electronic devices, cadmium, cobalt, nickel and other heavy metals also can be reused in new batteries.

It just depends on consumers taking initiative and getting them to the appropriate battery recycling drop-off sites.

“If we can recycle tin cans and plastic bottles and all that, why can’t we recycle batteries?” Cairns said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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