Up in the Air: The tricky business of disposing of dead batteries

Laste modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I was all charged up last spring after attending an Earth Day event that urged people to recycle batteries - and thereby help keep dangerous chemicals out of our soil, air and water. Instead of throwing dead batteries in the wastebasket, I started setting them aside so I could bring them to the next hazardous waste collection event.Last month that collection day finally arrived - but it turns out my efforts were unnecessary, for this reason: All the batteries I’d gathered were the alkaline type. Under both state and federal law, alkaline batteries don’t have to be separated out for recycling or other special handling. Here’s the official word, from the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs: “Domestically manufactured [alkaline] batteries made after 1994 no longer contain mercury and can be disposed of in the trash.” Such batteries are now made with steel, zinc and manganese, which aren’t considered toxic. As far as I can tell, you can’t recycle alkaline batteries in western Massachusetts even if you want to, because no one collects them.But the Earth Day advice wasn’t entirely off the mark. There are other kinds of batteries that should never be thrown into the trash: nickel cadmium rechargeable batteries, lithium batteries and button batteries (the kind used in watches and hearing aids). They still contain harmful materials, and require special handling.Rechargeables can be recycled, and finding a place to drop them off is easy thanks to the nonprofit Call 2 Recycle. When I entered my ZIP code on its website it showed a half dozen nearby collection points, including Radio Shack and YES Computers in Northampton, Manchester’s in Easthampton and Lowe’s in Hadley. Go to www.call2recycle.org or call 800-8-BATTERY for more information. Many local municipal landfills also accept rechargeables.Lithium and button batteries should be disposed of only at a hazardous waste collection.Even though it’s lawful to toss alkaline batteries in the trash, not all communities nationwide are convinced that’s the best practice. The city of Seattle, for instance, allows residents to throw alkalines away - but also provides a recycling option for them. Eric Weiss of the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative, which sponsored the hazardous waste collection in Goshen where I had intended to bring my batteries, told me that he’d like to see alkaline batteries out of the waste stream, too. But recycling costs money, and until there’s political pressure to institute such a program, it’s unlikely to be funded anytime soon, he said.