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Taking batteries green

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 9:25am
Thomas Blaha, Memory Protection Devices, Inc.

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

Growing concerns about such issues as peak oil, climate change, carbon emissions, ozone layer depletion and industrial pollution 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 our industrialized society, governments and industry associations worldwide will be forced to start taking increasingly pro-active measures to help protect the future of our planet and its inhabitants. However, arguments surrounding how far and how fast we need to move in order to effectively counteract man’s impact on the environment can digress into complex discussions about the validity and possible biases of available data as well as cost vs. benefit considerations that are difficult to quantify.

Meanwhile, these arguments fail to negate our common obligation to serve as environmental stewards by incorporating simple and sensible steps into our daily lives that benefit the environment without causing undue cost.

The electronics industry must play a critical role in transforming our society into a more environmentally conscious global community by incorporating common sense solutions that reduce the e-waste stream, starting with the disposal and 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 coordinated approach to re-use and recycling could be enormous, especially if all consumer batteries became replaceable, and, wherever possible, disposable alkaline dry-cell batteries were replaced with rechargeable battery chemistries.

Through the use of low cost reliable battery holders rather than soldered-in connections, the vast majority of batteries found in consumer products could become easily replaceable, providing additional benefits by extending the service life of consumer products, which further reduces the e-waste stream.

Li-ion SideBarAccording 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.

Rechargeable batteries often carry a significantly higher initial cost compared to alkaline cells. However over the expected service life of the device, the switch to rechargeable batteries can result in significant long-term savings. For example, a pack of four AA rechargeable batteries may cost the consumer approximately $50 initially but provide years of service life with up to 500 recharges. Continually replacing sets of disposable AA-size alkaline batteries over the same time period could end up costing the consumer approximately $1,000 over the life of the product.

Lithium-ion chemistry is rapidly emerging as the prevailing choice among rechargeable technologies used in cell phones, computers, hybrid-electric cars and electric cars, to 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 expanded regulatory controls over the manufacturing, recycling and transport 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 the 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 must be easily removable, with labels that indicate the battery chemistry, show the “three chasing arrows” symbol, and contain phrases that indicate consumer responsibility for proper battery recycling or disposal.

The Battery Act further stipulates that regulated batteries must be properly labeled and easily detachable or removable from a rechargeable consumer product at the “end-of-life” using common household tools. The Battery Act also phases out the use of 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.

The U. S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration also recently enacted Call2Recycle regulations that require all batteries to be individually bagged or taped prior to shipping starting January 10, 2010, as improperly packaged batteries can short circuit and pose a fire hazard.

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 shippers trained 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, establishing mandatory electronics recycling and recovery programs for computers, peripherals and other electronic devices on a state-by-state basis.

Battery manufacturers have been highly supportive of this “green” movement 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, PA

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, presenting very serious health risks 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 may come down so as long as raw material prices remain stable. Making lithium rechargeable batteries more affordable could provide leading manufacturers of consumer electronic products with further impetus to incorporate rechargeable battery technologies, allowing them to promote their corporate efforts to reduce the e-waste stream. Ongoing advancements in battery holder design and adaptability to pick-and-place assembly is also making it easier for OEMs and contract manufacturers to integrate battery replacement solutions into high speed production and board assembly operations. The composite effect of these efforts will ultimately make the “green” movement less costly and thus more palatable to electronic device manufacturers.

The public is realizing the importance of the green movement in greater and greater numbers, and it is becoming ever more vital to address these concerns in the electronics industry. Simply reacting to new government regulations will no longer be enough; consumers are beginning to discriminate which manufacturers are adding value to their products through the utilization of modern technologies that reduce our impact on the world. Batteries and battery holders have improved over the last few years, just as all products have, and are now more reliable and better engineered. The use of modern, reliable battery holders and rechargeable, replaceable battery technologies is just one of the few new ways we can continue to enjoy the benefits of electronics without causing more environmental damage than we have to. In the end, latent market forces will favor forward thinking companies, which will adapt and survive, and those that don't will become obsolete.

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