The contemporary world in a way, is completely battery-driven. Be it our indispensable cell phones, laptops or other electronic devices, landline telephones and also cars, batteries form an inextricable part of modern living. On the flip side, in spite of their multi-faceted uses, batteries are also known to have properties that may seriously damage our environment and also human health, if they are aren’t recovered and properly recycled and, instead, sent to landfills, mostly through household garbage.
Why is that?
Batteries contain elements like lead, mercury, cadmium, manganese, lithium, zinc, nickel hydride and nickel, which are all non-renewable. However, they are all recyclable and come with a commercial value. The bad news is that lead, mercury and cadmium are known to be potentially hazardous to the environment as also human health.
When disposed off as landfill, these heavy metals obviously seep into the surrounding surface water and groundwater. This makes it all the more necessary for their extraction from waste streams and subsequent recycling. The sheer magnitude of the problem has therefore, made worldwide legislation and development of alternative waste facilities compulsory for recovering such organic materials from waste streams. The following are the major reasons why used batteries must never make their way to landfills:
- Moreover, it also becomes difficult to separate the smaller batteries if mixed waste enters the facility. This calls for removal of all batteries from the mixed waste stream which could result in enhanced organics diversion from landfills to useful applications such as compost manufacturing.
- When batteries are dumped in landfills, their casing corrodes and the harmful chemicals, which eventually contaminate our water supplies, make their way to the ocean, thereby spreading environmental pollution further.
- Lithium moreover, is known to be volatile and causes fires at landfills. These can continue burning underground for years together and inevitably results in the release of toxic chemicals into the air which is potentially dangerous for humans.
- Nickel and Cadmium, both essential elements in battery manufacturing, are proven human carcinogens. Moreover, they are linked to congenital defects, autism and neurological damage in humans if consumed internally or by inhalation. Cadmium particularly, is absorbed by plant roots, finally accumulating in vegetables, grass and fruits. This is also known to cause other health conditions like nausea, abdominal pain, excessive salivation, kidney and liver damage, dermatological irritation, asthma, headaches, anxiety neurosis and even cancer.
- Mercury in vapor form is also known to be highly toxic and is known to be absorbed through the skin. This has led to its ban as a raw material in some countries when it comes to manufacturing batteries.
- Potassium leaks are responsible for causing severe chemical burns on the skin and also negatively affect the eyes.
- Landfills are infamous for generating deadly methane gas that eventually leads to the ‘greenhouse effect’ and unwanted climatic changes globally.
Reasons for recycling batteries:
This has led to a situation where batteries need to be mandatorily recycled instead of being dumped in landfills. In fact, nowadays direct mailers are inserted into packages of new cell phones urging users to return their old phones for recycling as part of public services programs. Lead-acid automotive batteries are recyclable through hazardous waste management programs both at the state and local levels. Single-use alkaline batteries, which no longer contain Mercury since the ban in 1996, are now safe enough to be trashed. These however, may be recycled in bulk.
When batteries are recycled, they not only help save natural resources and enhance energy conservation but also reduce pollution and the unwanted need for landfills. They also help generate additional income for battery manufacturers and reduced import costs of batteries. It may be noted here that ninety eight percent of all lead acid batteries produced in the US are recycled. However, on the flip side, in North America alone, only 1 in 6 households take the initiative for recycling their rechargeable batteries. Similarly, in Australia 90 per cent of all lead-acid batteries are recycled.
The problem is more apparent in the developing nations, which pay scant attention their mounting environmental problems because other issues like poverty alleviation and population control get top priority on their respective national agendas.
Save the environment:
The prime cause therefore, for recycling batteries instead of using them as landfill material is to reduce or even eliminate environmental damage. This can be done through proper recycling of used batteries; appropriately remunerating consumers for returning or selling their used batteries; making more use of rechargeable batteries instead of primary batteries; implementing and enforcing more stringent laws for battery disposal; making used battery collection centers more readily available and easily accessible to those concerned; encouraging users to buy batteries that contain less Lead, Mercury and Cadmium; and by providing exhaustive information to battery users about their safety, suitability and methods of disposal at the time of purchase. These could be in addition to more research and development on the development of alternative energy storage devices such as fuel cells, known to be less hazardous to the environment; and also developing newer renewable energy sources like wind, solar and water.
As battery usage continues to grow, its disposal too, assumes special significance because of its negative effects on the environment as also on human health. This is more applicable to the developing countries where such toxic chemicals are definitely known to damage soil micro-organisms and negatively impact the breakdown of organic matter; bio-accumulate in fish, thereby reducing their population and making them unfit for human consumption.
As hazardous waste, they may be collected in concrete-encased solid steel drums so their casings don’t get eroded by air and/or water. In sum, the simplest and most effective way to prevent battery waste is to reduce battery consumption. Which is why it makes more sense to use rechargeable batteries which not only help you save money but reduce the negative impact on the environment.
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