Typical Types of Household Batteries

Common Uses

Primary Cells (Nonrechargeable)







Cassettes players, radios, appliances Flashlights, toys, etc.

Cameras, calculators, watches, computers, etc. Hearing aids, pacemakers, cameras, calculators, watches, etc. Hearing aids, watches, cameras, calculators Hearing aids, pagers

Secondary Cells (Rechargeable)


Cameras, rechargeable appliances such as portable power tools, hand-held vacuums, etc.

Camcorders, computers, portable radios, and tape players, cellular phones, lawn mower starters, etc.

Small sealed lead-acid

Battery manufacturers are producing more rechargeable batteries each year. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has estimated that the U.S. demand for rechargeable batteries is growing twice as fast as the demand for nonrechargeable batteries.

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) started a nationwide take-back program in 1994 for the collection and recycling of used nickel-cadmium batteries. The RBRC expanded in 2001 to include all portable rechargeable batteries in its take-back program. This is the first nationwide take-back program that involves an entire U.S. industry. Much of this progress has come in response to far-reaching legislation at the State and the Federal level in the United States. Starting in 1989, 13 States took the lead by adopting laws (including battery labeling requirements) 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, which removed barriers to the rechargeable battery recycling and helped facilitate the RBRC's nationwide take-back program. In addition, many States have passed legislation prohibiting incineration and landfilling of mercury-containing and lead-acid batteries.

The following are important legal terminologies for this section. The term "mercuric-oxide battery" means a battery that uses a mercuric-oxide electrode.

The term "rechargeable battery" (a) means one or more voltaic or galvanic cells, electrically connected to produce electric energy, that are designed to be recharged for repeated uses and (b) includes any type of enclosed device or sealed container consisting of one or more such cells, including what is commonly called a battery pack (and in the case of a battery pack, for the purposes of the requirements of easy removability and labeling under law, means the battery pack as a whole rather than each component individually); but it does not include a lead-acid battery used to start an internal combustion engine, a lead-acid battery used for load leveling or for storage of electricity, and a battery used as a backup power source for the memory or program, nor a rechargeable alkaline battery.

The term "rechargeable consumer product" (a) means a product that, when sold retail, includes a regulated battery as a primary energy supply and which is primarily intended for 1 kW personal or household use, but (b) does not include a product that uses only a battery as a sole source of backup power for memory or program instruction storage, timekeeping, or any other similar purpose that requires uninterrupted electrical power, in order to function if the primary energy supply fails or fluctuates momentarily.

The term "regulated battery" means a rechargeable battery that (a) contains a cadmium or a lead electrode or any combination of cadmium and lead electrodes or (b) contains other electrode chemistries and is the subject of a determination by the Administrator of the U.S. EPA under environmental laws.

The term "remanufactured product" means a rechargeable consumer product that has been altered by the replacement of parts, repackaged, or repaired after initial sale by the original manufacturer.

As stated previously, a battery is an electrochemical device with the ability to convert chemical energy to electrical energy to provide power to electronic devices. Household batteries may also contain cadmium, mercury, copper, zinc, lead, manganese, nickel, and lithium, which may create a hazard when disposed incorrectly. The potential problems or hazards of household batteries are similar to that of vehicle batteries.

In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater, or surface water. Dry cell batteries contribute about 88% of the total mercury and 50% of the cadmium in the MSW stream. In the past, household batteries accounted for nearly half of the mercury used in the United States and over half of the mercury and cadmium in the MSW stream. When burned, some heavy metals such as mercury may vaporize and escape into the air, and cadmium and lead may end up in the ash.

Controversy exists about reclaiming household batteries. Currently, most batteries collected through household battery collection programs are disposed of in hazardous waste landfills. There are no known recycling facilities in the United States that can practically and cost effectively reclaim all types of household batteries, although facilities exist that reclaim some button batteries. Currently, battery collection programs typically target button and nickel-cadmium batteries, but may collect all household batteries because of the consumers' difficulty in identifying battery types.

There are two major types of household batteries: (a) Primary batteries are those that cannot be reused. They include alkaline/manganese, carbon-zinc, mercuric oxide, zinc-air, silver oxide, and other types of button batteries. (b) Secondary batteries are those that can be reused; secondary batteries (rechargeable) include lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, and potentially nickel-hydrogen.

Mercury reduction in household batteries began in 1984 and continues today. During the last five years, the industry has reduced the total amount of mercury usage by about 86%. Some batteries such as the alkaline battery have had about a 97% mercury reduction in the product. Newer alkaline batteries may contain about one-tenth the amount of mercury previously contained in the typical alkaline battery. Some alkaline batteries have zero-added mercury, and several mercury-free, heavy-duty, carbon-zinc batteries are on the market.

Mercuric oxide batteries are being gradually replaced by new technologies such as silver oxide and zinc-air button batteries that contain less mercury.

Nickel-cadmium rechargeable batteries are being researched. Alternatives such as cadmium-free nickel and nickel hydride systems are also being researched, but nickel-cadmium batteries are unlikely to be totally replaced. Nickel-cadmium batteries can be reprocessed to reclaim the nickel. However, currently, approximately 80% of all nickel-cadmium batteries are permanently sealed in appliances. Changing regulations may result in easier access to these nickel-cadmium batteries for recycling.

To reduce the amount of waste, start with pollution prevention. Starting with pollution prevention leads to less or no leftover waste that could potentially become hazardous wastes. The use of rechargeable batteries results in a longer life span and use fewer batteries. However, rechargeable batteries still do contain heavy metals such as nickel-cadmium. When disposing of rechargeable batteries, recycle them if possible.

The use of rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries can reduce the number of batteries entering the waste stream, but may increase the amount of heavy metals entering the waste stream unless they are more effectively recycled. As of 1992, the percentage of cadmium in nickel-cadmium batteries was higher than the percentage of mercury in alkaline batteries; so substitution might only replace one heavy metal for another, and rechargeable batteries do use energy resources during recharging. Rechargeable alkaline batteries are available along with rechargers.

Recycle waste batteries if possible. Batteries with high levels of mercury or silver can be recovered for the refining process. The mercuric oxide batteries can be targeted for recollection and mercury recovery. There are a few mercury-refining locations in the United States that accept mercury batteries, and they could be contacted about battery recycling.

Mercury oxide and silver oxide button batteries are sometimes collected by jewelers, pharmacies, hospitals, and electronic or hearing aid stores for shipping them to companies that reclaim mercury or silver. Some batteries cannot be recycled. If recycling is not possible, batteries should be saved for disposing of at a hazardous waste collection. Battery recycling and button battery collection may be good options at present, but may change as the mercury concentration in the majority of button batteries continues to decrease.

Batteries may be taken to a household-hazardous-waste collection or a local battery collection program. One can also contact the battery manufacturer for other disposal options or for information on collection programs. If disposal is the only option, and the household batteries are not banned from the permitted landfill in the area, one should protect the batteries for disposal by placing them in a sturdy plastic bag in a sturdy container to help guard against leakage. Waste batteries should not be burned because of the metals that could explode. When burned, some heavy metals such as mercury may vaporize and escape into the air, and cadmium and lead may end up in the ash.12

In the United States, Federal and State initiatives are assisting the businesses and consumers in managing, reusing, recycling, and disposal of household batteries. These include the Universal Waste Rule and the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act.

The Universal Waste Rule, promulgated in 1995, was designed to encourage recovery and recycling of certain hazardous wastes (including batteries, thermostats, and some pesticides) by removing some of the regulatory barriers. Under the rule, batteries recovered and properly managed are exempt from some RCRA provisions, no matter who generates the waste. Promulgation of the Universal Waste Rule facilitated the battery industry's take-back system for Ni-Cd batteries in states that adopted the rule through state rulemaking.

The Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act (the "Battery Act"), which was turned into a law on May 13, 1996, removed previous barriers to Ni-Cd battery recycling programs resulting from varying individual state laws and regulatory restrictions governing the labeling, collection, recycling, and transportation of these batteries. The Act facilitated and encouraged voluntary industry programs for recycling Ni-Cd batteries, such as the national "Charge Up to Recycle" program. The Act also established national labeling requirements for rechargeable batteries, ordered that rechargeable batteries be easy to remove from consumer products, and restricted the sale of certain batteries that contain mercury.

The 1996 Battery Act eased the burden on battery recycling programs by mandating national, uniform labeling requirements for Ni-Cd and certain small sealed lead-acid batteries and by making the Universal Waste Rule effective in all 50 States. The Battery Act indicates (a) the State labeling requirements for these battery types and (b) the State legislative and regulatory authority for the collection, storage, and transportation of Ni-Cd and other covered batteries. States can, however, adopt standards for battery recycling and disposal that are more stringent than existing Federal standards. They can also adopt more stringent requirements concerning the allowable mercury content in batteries.

Several States have passed legislation mandating additional reductions in mercury beyond those in the Battery Act and prohibiting or restricting the disposal in MSW of batteries with the highest heavy metal content (i.e., Ni-Cd, small sealed lead-acid, and mercuric oxide batteries). A handful of States have gone further, placing collection and management requirements on battery manufacturers and retailers to ensure that certain types of batteries are recycled or disposed of properly.

Many States and regional organizations have developed far-reaching legislation for battery management, which is beyond the scope of the Federal law. Only the following two organizations are introduced here: (a) the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA) and (b) the New England Governors' Conference.

The NEWMOA, a coalition of state waste program directors from New England and New York, has developed a model legislation meant to reduce mercury in waste. The model legislation proposes a variety of approaches that states can use to manage mercury-containing products (such as batteries, thermometers, and certain electronic products) and wastes, with a goal of instituting consistent controls throughout the region. The proposed approaches focus on notification, product phaseouts and exemptions, product labeling, disposal bans, collection and recycling programs, and a mechanism for interstate cooperation. Bills based on the model legislation have been under consideration by legislators in New Hampshire and Maine. In April 2000, NEWMOA released a revised version of the model legislation following a series of public meetings and the collection of comments from stakeholders.

The New England Governors' Conference passed a resolution in September 2000 recommending, among other things, that each New England State work with its legislature to adopt mercury legislation based on the NEWMOA model (see above). The NEWMOA model legislation is meant to reduce the amount of mercury in waste through strategies such as product phaseouts, product labeling, disposal bans, and collection and recycling programs. Certain types of mercury-containing batteries are among the products targeted by the model legislation.

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