Think of all the different types of batteries that power electronic gadgets: AA, AAA, C, D, lithium-ion and so on. What do you do with them when they're dead? At one time, you could just throw them in the trash and forget about them, but since they contain hazardous chemicals, many state and local governments have passed laws on e-waste recycling and disposal.
Pay Attention to Environmental Laws
Each state sets its own laws on how batteries and other types of e-waste are to be disposed. In California, it's illegal to throw away batteries of any kind in the trash. Everyone must take old batteries to a hazardous waste disposal facility, a universal waste handler or an authorized recycling facility. The state has been steadily moving in a direction this century to punish polluters. In 2017, California passed a law that nearly tripled the penalty for improper hazardous waste disposal as it jumped from $25,000 to $70,000.
The U.S. Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) reported nearly 2.4 million tons of e-waste were disposed in 2009, which was an increase of over 120 percent from ten years earlier. Only 25 percent of e-waste was recycled and the rest ended up in landfills. In the 2020s, the EPA says about 140 million tons of overall waste is sent to landfills every year.
The danger of old electronic devices piling up in landfills is that toxic chemicals can leak from them into ground and water systems. By 2022, half of all states and the nation's capital had established e-waste recycling programs. Some states now require light bulbs to be recycled since certain types of bulbs can still release the toxic element mercury into the environment when they break.
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What to Do with Old Batteries
As soon as batteries go dead, you should remove them from the device they power so that leakage doesn't damage the equipment. All batteries, even those designed for single-use, can be recycled. When taking old batteries to a recycler, you should put duct tape or electrical tape over both ends of each battery to prevent leakage.
While single-use battery recyclers may require fees to drop off items, all states except California allow people to throw single-use batteries in the trash. That's because modern single-use batteries contain non-hazardous materials, according to the federal government. The exception is button cell batteries in watches, which still contains hazardous materials. Prior to 1996, single-use batteries generally contained mercury.
Rechargeable batteries, such as those that power mobile phones, should not be thrown in the trash because they typically still contain hazardous chemicals. Resources such as Call2Recycle.org and Earth911.com can direct you toward e-waste recycling centers in your area. Both sites provide search tools for finding recyclers all over the United States. Familiar stores that accept old batteries for free include The Home Depot, Lowe's and Staples.
Choices for Old Electronics
Some electronic machines last for decades, but usually the older the device is, the more likely it contains hazardous toxins such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury. Nevertheless, old machines can still be reused, repurposed or recycled. In many respects, it's better to take an old machine out of circulation and give it to a recycler than donate it to charity or sell it online.
Most modern electronic equipment is commonly designed to be more eco-friendly and energy-efficient. It's better to donate equipment 10-20 year-old to a charity or sell it online while sending older items to a recycler. There are exceptions, such as for nostalgic purposes. Old stereo systems are still cherished by many people, so they still have use and can even be adapted to include more modern components.
Another concern about old electronics is old wiring can cause a fire due to flying sparks. It's crucial to discontinue using any machines with worn cords, which can cause electric shock. Degraded circuitry may also damage equipment.
If you are planning on giving away or selling an old cell phone or computer, be sure to first delete all the data. Additionally, remove the SIM or SD card so that whoever gets the device next doesn't have your private data. Check with the manufacturer, retailer or carrier of the phone if they offer trade-in or recycling plans. Check with Best Buy about recycling old TVs and audio equipment as well as desktop computers, tablets and smartphones.
Planning for E-Waste Reduction
Nearly every business uses some type of electronics such as computers and printers. One way companies have cut down on big investments in hardware is to allow employees to bring their own devices.
But many people have become fans of smartphones so much that they buy new ones every few years to keep up with the latest tech trends. This thinking contributes to e-waste expansion. A more sustainable strategy is to aim for investing in durable devices with a plan on what to do with each item once they're no longer useful to the company.
Sustainability might not yet be a regular topic for many businesses, but those that embrace it as a concept will be best prepared for the challenging road ahead. Regulations will likely get stricter on environmental concerns while consumers become more aware of which companies are helping versus harming the environment everyone shares.
Aside from greener government regulations, the advocacy e-waste recycling programs are spreading across several industries in the march toward sustainability. If you decide to do a clean-out session for your business, make sure you know how to dispose of or recycle batteries and other electronics properly.