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Assault on Batteries

Assault on Batteries

By Douglas J. Buege, The Cap Times, August 12, 2014.

When I was a kid, I had this cool robot that rolled around, flashed lights, and made weird sounds. It had a backpack that held two of those big AA batteries. I remember the last batteries — two Rayovacs that featured the cat jumping through the O — that corroded and destroyed the toy. What child would think that those little metal packages could pack such destruction?

Now, Rayovac’s drawing negative attention on a larger scale for being the one leading battery manufacturer of the Big Four to refuse to take back dead batteries. The Texas Campaign for the Environment has been dogging Spectrum Brands, Rayovac’s overseers, for refusing to take responsibility for their products. The Texans even shook up the recent Clean Lakes Festival in Madison with their theatrical protest.

Spectrum insists that used batteries belong in the landfill, even though Rayovac’s UK arm dispatched a press release calling for a take-back program to protect the environment.

There’s no doubt that batteries contain valuable materials that can be reclaimed. The common alkalines we use in smoke detectors and other devices contain steel as well as zinc and manganese compounds. Unfortunately, at current market prices, it costs more to extract these materials from batteries than to purchase new metals.

From Rayovac’s perspective, having to pay more to recycle batteries is negative, as it reduces their profits. But is their response — throwing the batteries away — a positive? Doing the right thing involves more than just avoiding negatives. Rayovac’s solution requires wasting resources, an obvious negative that they pass on to the rest of us. We should be able to find options that are basically good, positive choices. In the case of batteries, we can create a positive option that avoids waste while reclaiming all the components of batteries for future use.

Unfortunately, if Rayovac and other industry leaders agree to a battery take-back program, they will likely raise their prices. Then other companies will be able to sell batteries at lower prices, effectively punishing the leaders for doing the right thing.

Anyone seeking to force battery recycling can take at least two routes: harass the companies into doing the right thing or promote legislation that forces all companies to be responsible. The second approach creates a level playing field, requiring ALL battery producers and retailers to play by identical rules. Such policy would allow Rayovac to take back batteries with less financial risk.

Vermont’s legislature has already led the way in passing the nation’s first law requiring battery collection and recycling. Though the bill has several exemptions that will complicate efforts and will still allow some batteries into the landfill, the legislation may be just the first of many such efforts. Most battery manufacturers will develop the infrastructure for taking back their batteries. And, given their drive to earn money, they will find ways to profit as they meet new legal requirements. Batteries of the future will likely have much better designs allowing for recapture of their components.

Batteries are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to keeping useful materials out of our landfills. In Badgerland, we throw away an incredible amount of valuable goods because disposal proves cheaper than figuring out how to reclaim the materials. Viroquans don’t even recycle the glass bottles they collect in their recycling program because it’s too expensive to truck the glass to Minneapolis or Milwaukee.

Creative minds would find ways to recycle these goods. People seeking to keep Wisconsin clean and healthy for their grandkids would pressure producers to design products that are waste-free. Responsible citizens would demand recycling for all the recyclable materials we produce. Enterprising thinkers may find ways to profit from making use of materials slated for disposal.

Concerning batteries, it’s time to draft legislation like Vermont’s so that Wisconsinites can keep one valuable item out of our landfills. In the meantime, Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a company that recycled 12 million pounds of batteries in 2013, recommends looking at their website — call2recycle.org — to find out how businesses and organizations can mail in used batteries to be recycled free of charge.

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