Dead and buried dangerously

Dead and buried dangerously

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

MILLIONS of old TVs and computers – with their toxic components – are dumped on nature strips throughout Australia.

But while the federal government has just passed laws to govern how companies must close the loop on electronic waste, how many of us are casually throwing away something else just as hazardous?

Household batteries that power cameras, wristwatches, smoke alarms and portable and gadgets are so small they are considered by many to be throwaway items.
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Each year, Australians toss away about 8000 tonnes of used household batteries that end up in landfill. And they are excluded from the programs introduced under the new Product Stewardship Bill, which was passed last month to target the disposal of used computers and televisions.

Household batteries are the most common hazardous waste items disposed of, with 68 per cent of households getting rid of them during the 12 months to March 2009, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The danger is that toxic chemicals and metals can leak from batteries when they erode in landfill and contaminate the environment.

But we can’t seem to live without them. About 345 million hand-held batteries are used each year in Australia, according to Australian Battery Recycling Initiative (ABRI) research. And only 4 per cent of these are recycled. This includes the common household batteries, such as AAA, AA and D alkaline and carbon-zinc batteries, as well as more specialised batteries for notebook computers, mobile phones, cordless power tools and hearing aids.

ABRI is an organisation made up of battery manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, government bodies and environment groups that promotes the recycling and safe disposal of batteries.

Two types of batteries are used most often around the house: non-rechargeable and rechargeable batteries. Non-rechargeable or single-use batteries are usually cylindrical alkaline batteries containing zinc and manganese. Single-use batteries also include small button batteries such as those found in wristwatches and hearing aids. These contain highly toxic mercury and silver.

Rechargeable batteries are typically nickel cadmium, nickel-metal hydride or lithium ion. Used rechargeable batteries are classified as hazardous waste under the Hazardous Waste Act 1989 and they must not be disposed of with general waste. This includes batteries in notebook computers, mobile phones, power tools and cameras.

Increasingly, some devices – look on the back of an – have a symbol of a crossed-out wheelie bin. This symbol means the batteries should not be thrown away with other wastes but collected separately.

Batteries can leach toxic chemicals (such as cadmium, lead or mercury) into the ground, contaminating soil and water. If groundwater is contaminated, it carries the contaminants with it as it moves.

Nickel is toxic in high doses but the cadmium in rechargeable batteries is one of the most dangerous substances.

According to the World Health Organisation, cadmium has toxic effects on the kidneys, the skeletal system and the respiratory system. It is classified as a human carcinogen.

But there is another reason to keep batteries out of landfill. The metals in batteries, including zinc, nickel, silver and cadmium, can be recovered and reused.

AusZinc, in Port Kembla in New South Wales, recycles non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. These batteries can be processed to recover zinc, manganese and iron. Melbourne e-waste recycler MRI processes nickel-cadmium batteries. Battery types that cannot be recycled locally are exported under permit to its partner in South Korea.

Using recycled metals from batteries also saves energy. According to the European Union Batteries Directive, using recycled cadmium and nickel requires 46 per cent and 75 per cent less primary energy, respectively, than extracting and refining virgin metals. For zinc, recycling takes only about a quarter of the energy needed to extract the metal from its ore.

But recycling and recovering metals is an expensive business.

Who is going to pay?

Sustainability Victoria runs a government-funded battery recycling program called Batteryback. It is a free recycling service for household single-use and rechargeable batteries.

Batteryback provides containers at participating retail stores where people can drop off their used batteries.

Since 2009, the program has picked up more than a tonne of small batteries.

But it is a pilot program that finishes in May.

Jan van de Graaff of Sustainability Victoria would like to see industry players fund the collection and processing of their batteries.

”We are hoping that brand owners, manufacturers, importers and retailers will take financial responsibility for a program such as this, where batteries are collected and recycled,” van der Graaff says.

”In Byteback, which was a similar program targeting computer equipment, 10 of the main leading brand owners contributed to the funding for collection, recycling and marketing of the program.”

All single-use alkaline batteries collected through Batteryback are sorted and then recycled in NSW, where zinc and manganese dioxide are recovered.

Rechargeable batteries are processed overseas to recover the nickel and cadmium. The recovered metals are made into other products and the cadmium can be returned to battery manufacturers.

The Batteryback pilot aims to gather recycling information for the industry, to see what works and what doesn’t.

ABRI prefers a voluntary recycling program such as MobileMuster, ABRI chief executive Helen Lewis says.

MobileMuster is a recycling program managed by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and funded by industry members. The recycling service is free to consumers, schools, businesses, local councils and government agencies.

”But, because we can’t get all of the [battery-using] industry on board, we may require government regulation,” Lewis says.

She says Australia is behind many European countries, as this country has no government regulations that require batteries to be recycled.

The European Union member states are obliged to set up battery-collection schemes.

”Later this year, new regulations for computers and TVs will be introduced [in Australia]. When they are imported, companies need to show they are part of a recycling scheme,” Lewis says.

The federal government’s Product Stewardship Bill will introduce a national recycling scheme for large products such as televisions and computers.