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Taking Batteries Green

Rechargeable and replaceable battery technologies offer important long-term environmental benefits

By Thomas Blaha
Memory Protection Devices, Inc.

Growing concerns about peak oil, climate change, carbon emissions, ozone layer depletion, industrial pollution and other environmental issues have raised alarms among consumers, business owners and policymakers worldwide. As more information becomes available about the long-term effects of environmental degradation caused by modern industrialized society, legislative bodies, government agencies and trade associations worldwide are being forced to take increasingly pro-active measures to help protect the future of our planet and its inhabitants.

Arguments surrounding how far and how fast we need to move in order to effectively counteract man’s impact on the environment often digress into complex discussions about the validity and potential biases of available scientific data, and the cost vs. benefit analysis of any proposed solution is often difficult to quantify. Meanwhile, all these arguments fail to negate our common obligation to serve as environmental stewards, especially when it comes to engaging in sensible strategies for electronics recycling and reclamation programs that benefit the environment without causing undue economic hardship.

The entire electronics industry needs to play a critical and central role in transforming our society into a more environmentally conscious global community by cost-effectively reducing the e-waste stream. We should start this process by examining ways of reducing the disposal of, while increasing the recycling of, cell phones, smart phones, PDAs and similar hand held devices.

With more than 1.1 billion mobile cell phones sold worldwide each year, the potential environmental benefits of a comprehensive and coordinated approach to re-use and recycling could be enormous, with the ultimate goal of designing virtually all consumer products to utilize batteries that are replaceable, and, wherever possible, replacing disposable alkaline dry-cell batteries with rechargeable battery chemistry.

For example, through the widespread use of low cost reliable battery holders instead of soldered-in connections, the vast majority of batteries found in consumer products could become easily replaceable. This would also lead to additional benefits such as extending the service life of consumer products, which would further reduce the e-waste stream. According to the EPA, Americans purchase nearly 3.3 billion alkaline batteries each year – a number that could be substantially reduced if consumer products were redesigned to operate on rechargeable batteries.

Although rechargeable batteries often carry a significantly higher initial cost compared to alkaline cells, over the expected service life of an electronic device significant long-term savings can be achieved by using rechargeable batteries. For example, a pack of four AA rechargeable batteries may have an initially cost to the consumer of approximately $50, but in return would provide many years of continuous service as today’s rechargeable batteries are capable of up to 500 recharges. Conversely, if you factor in the cost of continually replacing disposable AA-size alkaline batteries over the lifespan of the product, you might be surprised to learn the total lifetime cost of ownership of that same device could exceed $1,000: over twenty times the one-time investment in rechargeable batteries.

Among rechargeable technologies, lithium-ion chemistry is emerging as the predominant choice for use in cell phones, computers, hybrid-electric cars and electric cars, as well as short-term power storage devices for wind and solar generated power. Lithium-ion batteries deliver top of the line performance and are far more environmentally-friendly than NiCd rechargeable batteries.

Increasing regulation for recycling

With an eye towards greater environmental protection, municipal, state, federal and international policymakers have significantly tightened and expanded regulatory controls over the manufacturing, recycling and transportation of batteries.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Act, which makes it easier for rechargeable battery and product manufacturers to collect and recycle NiCd batteries as well as certain small sealed lead-acid batteries. The Battery Act requires that batteries intended for “personal or household use” in cellular phones, laptop computers, cordless power tools, personal computers, video cameras and uninterruptible power source (UPS) devices be easily removable, properly labeled to indicate the battery chemistry, depict the “three chasing arrows” symbol and contain language that indicates consumer responsibility for proper battery recycling and disposal.

The Battery Act further stipulates that regulated batteries must be properly labeled and easily detachable or removable from a rechargeable consumer product using common household tools at “end-of-life.” The Battery Act also phases out the use of certain chemistry, including alkaline-manganese batteries that intentionally contain mercury (except for button cells containing less that 25 mg of mercury), zinc-carbon batteries that intentionally contain mercury, button cell mercuric-oxide batteries and certain other mercuric oxide batteries.

Since improperly packaged batteries can short circuit and therefore potentially pose a fire hazard, the U. S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recently enacted Call2Recycle regulations that require all batteries to be individually bagged or taped prior to shipping starting January 10, 2010. The USDOT regulations call for lithium-ion batteries to be sorted separately from other recyclable batteries, including individually bagged (or terminals-taped) to ensure safe storage and shipping. These regulations also require packaging instructions that expressly forbid the shipping of these batteries by aircraft and vessel. Furthermore, if the shipping package is damaged, the batteries must be quarantined, inspected and repackaged. Also, any package containing lithium-ion batteries with a gross weight of more than 30kg (66 lbs) must be marked “LITHIUM BATTERY, UN 3090,” as well as carry the Class 9 Miscellaneous hazard label, be accompanied by hazardous material shipping papers and handled exclusively by specially trained shippers in accordance with U.S. hazardous material regulations.

Dozens of states have also joined in the green movement by passing various forms of e-waste legislation, including the establishment of mandatory electronics recycling and recovery programs for computers, peripherals and other electronic devices, although the provisions differ substantially on a state by state basis.

Battery manufacturers as a group have been highly supportive of e-waste reduction by independently funding the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), a nonprofit public service organization dedicated to educating manufacturers, retailers and consumers about the benefits of rechargeable battery recycling. A key initiative of the RBRC has been to establish a national cadmium recovery facility in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.

Looking to the future

The need for greater regulation and self-policing by the electronic industry is clearly indicated by the fact that approximately 73% of municipal solid waste is either land filled or incinerated. Neither of these methods is well suited for the disposal of rechargeable batteries or other forms of e-waste. In landfills, heavy metals from discarded batteries and circuit boards can leach into the soil, ground water or surface water. When incinerated, the heavy metals contained in batteries and electronic devices can enter the atmosphere through smokestack emissions or incinerator ash. Once introduced into the environment through landfill disposal or incineration, these heavy metals can then make their way into the food chain. This presents a very serious health risk to humans and animals, as cadmium and other heavy metals are known carcinogens.

As rechargeable batteries become less toxic and increasingly ubiquitous in everyday use, the cost of rechargeable cells should come down assuming that raw material prices remain relatively stable. Making lithium rechargeable batteries more affordable would provide leading manufacturers of consumer electronic products with the impetus to incorporate rechargeable battery technologies to all new products, thereby showcasing corporate sensitivity to environmental issues aimed at reducing the e-waste stream.

In addition, ongoing advancements in battery holder design and enhanced adaptability to pick-and-place assembly is making it easier for OEMs and contract manufacturers to integrate battery replacement solutions into high speed production and assembly operations. Reduced manufacturing costs will ultimately make the transition to the green movement less of a bottom line concern and thus more palatable to electronic device manufacturers.

As public awareness increases regarding the importance of the green movement, it will become increasingly essential for the electronics industry to take a farsighted and visionary approach. Simply waiting and reacting to new government regulations will no longer suffice, as consumers are starting to use social networking to punish or reward manufacturers based on their environmental sensitivity.

Batteries and battery holder design has improved over the last few years, and are now more reliable and better engineered than ever before. The widespread use of modern, reliable battery holders and rechargeable and replaceable battery technologies is just one of the ways that we can continue to enjoy the all benefits of modern electronics without causing undue environmental damage.

In the end, latent market forces will favor forward thinking companies, which will adapt and survive, while those that don’t will become obsolete.
Thomas Blaha
Phone: 631-249-0001