What to do with all these batteries?

May 8, 2009

When we reporters go out and get stories, we use electricity. This electricity comes from batteries. These batteries die, and get tossed into boxes back here at the WBEZ mothership. These boxes pile up "¦ um, for years. In sum: we now have a modest-sized superfund site in the middle of our newsroom. I have watched the batteries pile up with morbid fascination. I have idly wondered: How much toxic waste is in there? How many birth defects could we cause? How many fish could we mutate, if we felt like it? And what the heck do we do with all of them? The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is sponsoring a household hazardous waste collection event this weekend in the northwest suburbs, where they accept disposable batteries, among other things. So I thought this was as good a time as any to investigate. The first task was to get a handle on the volume. This was accomplished with a bathroom scale, and documented by our crack multimedia team.

I confess, the results surprised even me. We have accumulated 184.4 lbs of used batteries. Now these aren't sealed in a drum in a storage area some where. These are on the shelves near the CD labels -- plus a hefty stockpile in Ammad Omar's cubicle (read: haz-mat disposal site). OK, now to find out how much mercury and sundry heavy metals are in one pound of AA batteries, multiply that by 184.4 pounds, and get one big scary number. But here's where it gets interesting. Or boring, depending on your point of view. I discovered that over the last few decades, U.S. battery-makers have virtually eliminated mercury and other toxic substances from disposable alkaline batteries. The stuff in batteries these days is so inert that David Waters, Manager of the Waste Reduction and Compliance Section at IEPA, says to just chuck "Ëœem in the trash. Even a large quantity (like, say, the weight of an average major-league ballplayer) can be thrown away with the regular trash, Waters says. (Businesses, like WBEZ, may have a few extra hoops to jump through "¦ but let's put that aside for now). Ironically, rechargeable batteries (like the ones this humble reporter uses) are much worse if thrown away. Nickel-Cadmium batteries are the worst, but Nickel-Metal-Hydride and Lithium-Ion batteries also contain some nasty heavy metals that should not find their way into landfills. Those batteries should be recycled. Additionally, "button-style" batteries, for watches and such, turn out to be chock full of poisonous stuff. But as for the rest "¦ have the recycling zealots overreached? Have we been taught to fear this common household item needlessly? Well, Chicago Streets and San officials say they'd still be more comfortable if you didn't toss your used batteries in the trash. They are, after all, full of acid and such. So "¦ ya know. That can't be too good. You can schlep them to the city's household chemicals and computer recycling facility, drop them at any library or Walgreens, or take them to Elk Grove Village this weekend for the IEPA event (see below for addresses). But have no illusions: the IEPA says they don't recycle regular alkaline batteries. They pack them in a drum and send them to a special landfill. So these babies are destined for the dump either way -- it's just a question of which dump you choose. Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Household hazardous waste collection event Elk Grove Pavilion 1000 Wellington Ave Elk Grove Village, IL Saturday, May 9 - 8:00 a.m. Locations from the City of Chicago on disposing of used batteries.

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