Handle with care

Handle with careDisposal of batteries containing toxic mercury, lead and cadmium has become a huge environmental issue. Melanie Reynolds finds out how industry is coping
Thousands of tonnes of them are made each year. They live a transient existence in our phones, toys, torches, radios, then they are discarded, in their millions.
Batteries are a problem:many of them contain chemicals that require special handling in industry.
And what do we the public do with them – throw them in the bin with all the other household rubbish and from here they are dumped as landfill. The dangers of heavy metal
Some of the materials contained in batteries have extremely serious effects on the human body.
The danger of dumping batteries in landfill sites is that the chemicals can leak out and contaminate the environment causing a serious pollution problem. The main culprits are cadmium, mercury and lead.
Cadmium is listed on the Environment Agency’s list of most toxic substances. It cannot degrade and persists in the environment where it can enter the food chain. Damage to liver, kidneys and the brain of humans and fish can result from contamination. Mercury is worse in a way because it can evaporate and so has an easier route for dispersal. In the environment it forms organic compounds that persist and it can accumulate in the fat of humans and fish.
In the old days mercury was used in the production of hats. The continued exposure to the metal had an adverse affect on the workers giving them permanent uncontrollable tremors – hence the expression ‘as mad as a hatter.’
Lead gives rise to brain damage, haemolysis (where the blood components break up and so don’t function properly), lowered resistance to infection and cancer of the lungs and kidneys.  
 
Most non-rechargeable cells, which contain zinc and carbon, do not present too much of a problem in the ground. But some non-rechargeables can contain toxic mercury – even some not specifically sold as ‘mercury cells’.
The bigger problem is the increasingly popular use of rechargeable batteries. Most can contain quantities of poisonous lead or cadmium.
All these heavy metals in domestic rubbish tips have the potential to insidiously pollute the soil and water supply as the metals leach out.
A European Union Directive exists that mandates the reduction of heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead in waste. Although it gives no specific targets, it does require collection of batteries and also reduction of certain materials in the batteries.
The Directive has to be adhered to in each EC country and the most recent decision in the UK was that legislation should be in place by the end of 1999 for the amount of mercury in general purpose batteries to be reduced to nothing.
According to the British Battery Manufacturers Association (BBMA) the big manufacturers had already seen this coming from earlier limitations on mercury content and eliminated it as far back as 1994. Paul Duke, secretary general of BBMA, explained that this was part of the industry’s two step plan. The next step is to start recycling these battery types.
“To be able to efficiently recycle general purpose batteries you need to be able to do it in the metals industry,” said Duke. “To be able to do that you need to be able to guarantee that the waste batteries are zero per cent mercury.”
From experience gained in other countries it will be four years after the legislation is introduced before a mixed pile of batteries can be confidently thought to contain a level of mercury that will not cause a problem for the metals industry.
When it comes to rechargeables the story is a bit different.
The majority of these are sold as battery packs into three main areas: mobile communications, emergency lighting and power tools.
The major manufacturers in these sectors already take back spent batteries, although how effective these schemes are is not clear.
Among rechargeable batteries, there is definitely an environmental issue with nickel-cadmium (NiCd) technology. This is the de-facto standard chemistry in power tools, but is starting to lose favour with the advent of nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) and lithium-ion (Li-ion) technologies in high value applications which offer performance advantages.
With a view to the recycling of NiCd, NiMH and Li-ion technologies an organisation called Rebat has been formed.
Subject to approval by the Office of Fair Trading this organisation will collect these three technologies from up to a thousand sites for recycling.
The three main sectors will be targeted due to the large quantities used but Duke admits there is more to it than just setting up the umbrella organisation due to the diverse natures of the sectors involved. “I think what’s likely to happen is there will be a degree of co-ordination through Rebat but there will also need to be targeted initiatives at particular sectors,” he said.
Making the scheme work means informing people and also giving them the opportunity. Duke thinks that legislation may be needed controlling the disposal of batteries by the end-user at some point as well.
Sutton is one of the few local councils in the UK which has a co-ordinated battery collection scheme. Penny Stirling, the recycling manager at Sutton Council, agrees on the need for public information. She thinks what is really needed is some sort of national campaign to make everyone aware.
But there is a problem with advertising due to the long life of some batteries. “Reminding people that their battery, when it’s completely spent in a few years time, can be recycled is quite an ongoing thing,” said Stirling.
Sutton Council decided to take a pro-active approach to the disposal of batteries over two years ago when it started providing recycling banks for batteries.
The scheme is still operational but at a low key level now. “I’ve been waiting to find out whether industry are actually going to help us with the cost,” said Stirling. “Should we really be paying the cost of recycling when it’s supposed to be an industry obligation?”


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