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Batteries: Product Stewartship

Every year in the United States, billions of batteries are bought, used, and thrown out. In 1998 alone, over three billion industrial and household batteries were sold. Households generally use disposable alkaline, rechargeable, and car batteries. The demand for batteries can be traced largely to the rapid increase in cordless, portable products such as cellular phones, video cameras, laptop computers, and battery-powered tools and toys.

Because many batteries contain toxic constituents such as mercury and cadmium, they pose a potential threat to human health and the environment when improperly disposed. Though batteries generally make up only a tiny portion of municipal solid waste (MSW)—less than 1 percent—they account for a disproportionate amount of the toxic heavy metals in MSW. (For example, EPA has reported that, as of 1995, nickel-cadmium batteries accounted for 75 percent of the cadmium found in MSW.) When MSW is incinerated or disposed of in landfills, under certain improper management scenarios, these toxics can be released into the environment.

Over the past decade, the battery industry, partly in response to public concerns and legislation, has played an active role in finding solutions to these problems. Industry efforts have touched on every stage of the product life cycle:

  • Redesign - Some battery manufacturers are redesigning their products to reduce or eliminate the use of toxic constituents. For example, since the early 1980s, manufacturers have reduced their use of mercury by over 98 percent.

  • Reuse - Battery manufacturers are producing more rechargeable batteries each year, relative to the number of non-rechargeable batteries produced. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has estimated that U.S. demand for rechargeables is growing twice as fast as demand for non-rechargeables.

  • Recycling - Since 1989, 13 states have adopted laws to facilitate the collection and recycling of used rechargeable batteries. In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act and many states passed legislation prohibiting incineration and landfilling of mercury-containing and lead-acid batteries.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
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