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According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), millions of single-use and rechargeable batteries are bought, used, and recycled or disposed of in the trash every year in the U.S. Batteries are made from mixtures of chemical elements for certain power and performance requirements. Batteries can contain metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, and silver, which can be dangerous for both humans and the environment. 

Environmental Impact of Batteries:

The production of batteries is a resource-intensive process, requiring large amounts of energy, water, and minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and graphite, which are considered critical minerals by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). 

What is a critical mineral?

“The Energy Act of 2020 defined critical minerals as those which 

  • Are essential to the economic or national security of the United States;
  • Have a supply chain that is vulnerable to disruption;
  • And serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economic or national security of the U.S. 

The act further specified that critical minerals do not include fuel minerals; water, ice, or snow; or common varieties of sand, gravel, stone, pumice, cinders, and clay.” 

The mining of these minerals can lead to soil degradation, water pollution, and social conflict in the regions of extraction. The production of batteries generates significant greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change. Mining can disrupt communities through land use change, resource consumption, and water contamination. It may also lead to the misuse of government resources and human rights violations such as child labor and gender inequality. 

Additionally, batteries can release hazardous chemicals into the environment if not disposed of properly. Lead, for example, can contaminate soil and groundwater, harming plants, animals, and humans. Cadmium and lithium can also harm the environment, affecting wildlife and water systems.

Sustainable Alternatives to Batteries:

To reduce the environmental and social impact of batteries, it is essential to develop sustainable alternatives. One such alternative is the use of rechargeable batteries, which can be used multiple times, reducing the need for new batteries to be produced. Another alternative is the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, to power devices, reducing the need for batteries altogether.

The development of more sustainable battery technologies continues with examples such as solid-state batteries, which use solid electrodes and electrolytes instead of liquid ones. These batteries have a higher energy density, making them more efficient and longer-lasting, and are also safer, as they are less likely to leak or catch fire.

Finally, recycling and repurposing old batteries are essential parts of reducing the environmental impact of batteries. Recycling batteries can help conserve resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by recovering valuable metals and materials. Repurposing old batteries can also help to extend their life, reducing the need for new batteries.

Proper Disposal of Batteries:

Batteries contain hazardous chemicals such as lead, cadmium, and lithium, which can harm the environment and human health if not disposed of properly. The easiest and safest way to dispose of batteries is to recycle them. When recycling batteries, it is essential to keep them separate from other household waste to ensure they are properly processed and disposed of. In Deschutes County, batteries can be disposed of at Knott Landfill Recycling and Transfer Facility as well as at Batteries Plus Bulbs. Other local retailers may also dispose of batteries. 

According to Knott Landfill Recycling and Transfer Facility, single alkaline dry cell batteries can be disposed of in regular garbage, but always check to make sure they do not contain hazardous materials like mercury. 

Batteries play a critical role in our daily lives, but their environmental and social impact must be considered. Proper disposal, the use of rechargeable batteries, the development of sustainable battery technologies, and recycling and repurposing old batteries are all essential steps in reducing the impact of batteries on the environment and society. By making conscious choices about how we use and dispose of batteries, we can help ensure a sustainable future for ourselves and the planet.