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Louisville Is Recycling Fewer Batteries—But Does It Matter?

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American landfills are full of trash that could be recycled or reused—things like bottles, paper, clothes and electronics. For some things, the benefits of recycling are obvious.

But for others, it’s murkier. That's the case with batteries.

At the Haz-Bin on Grade Lane, it’s easy to drop off batteries for recycling. You pull under a overhang, answer a few questions about what you have, your zip code, then hand over—in my case—a coffee can full of dead batteries.

Easy.

But what’s not so easy is the location. Grade Lane is off of Fern Valley Road, near the airport. It’s not somewhere I have a reason to drive by on a daily basis.

There’s another Metro-operated place for battery recycling: the Waste Reduction Center on Meriwether Avenue. But these are the only two options. You used to be able to drop off batteries at any of the 13 unstaffed recycling locations, but that was discontinued due to concerns about methamphetamine cooks raiding those locations for dead batteries. The service also used to be offered at the city’s four staffed recycling centers, but that stopped after inspectors raised issue with the lack of eye-washes at those locations.

This cutting of locations, said Solid Waste Management District advisory committee member Sarah Lynn Cunningham, is pretty much the opposite way to increase recycling.

“In general, if we plan recycling programs to make them really easy for people to participate, we do see the participation rates go way, way up,” she said.

And the diminishing options seem to be correlating to less battery recycling.

In 2012, a company called Veoliathat has a contract with Metro Government recycled 18,211 pounds of alkaline batteries from Louisville.

In 2013, with fewer locations, only 13,116 pounds were recycled. This year seems to be on a similar course: from January through August, Veolia recycled 8,858 pounds of alkaline batteries.Listen to the story.

Louisville pays Veolia $1.15 for every pound of alkaline batteries that’s recycled. And while there are clear benefits to recycling things like plastic or aluminum cans, batteries are a grayer area. Even some people who take sustainability and recycling seriously—like Cunningham—are conflicted.

“Do I think it’s OK to just throw away alkaline batteries? I guess I’m going to say it’s not the worst thing in the world," she said. "I’m not going to give anyone a dirty look who would admit that to me.”

First of all, it’s perfectly legal to drop your alkaline batteries in the trash. Batteries used to contain mercury, which meant they were legitimately hazardous waste. But Marc Boolish of the Corporation for Battery Recycling says that’s no longer the case.

“Essentially right now, the mercury issue is really a moot point for batteries at this point,” he said. “It’s been more than 20 years since the vast majority of batteries have been mercury-free.”

The Corporation for Battery Recycling is a non-profit organized by some of the country’s largest battery companies: Duracell, Energizer and Panasonic. And as its name suggests, its purpose is to advocate for battery recycling programs. Boolish and his colleagues see this as part of their companies’ sustainability efforts. They’re pushing for individual states to adopt legislation mandating alkaline battery recycling, and are willing to pay for the programs, too.

In lieu of those programs, cities like Louisville are paying outside contractors, like Veolia, to recycle their batteries. Veolia General Manager Kevin Shaver said being able to reuse the materials from batteries is more sustainable than producing new steel, zinc and manganese.

“You have to look at the total environmental cost, if you will, for recycling versus producing a new product,” he said.

But some life-cycle analyses have suggested the process expends so much energy for such little benefit that it’s a net negative for the environment. Boolish said a newer study shows some promise, and that with new technology and a carefully-controlled plan, there could be environmental benefits to recycling batteries.

But in the meantime, there are two Metro-sanctioned locations to recycle batteries in a city that covers about 400 square miles. Unless you live or work near one of those locations, it’s not exactly convenient. And according to Boolish, at some point under that scenario, you lose the environmental benefit of battery recycling.

“With the life cycle analyses we’ve done, if you’re making a dedicated trip to do it, you’re actually doing more harm to the environment,” he said.

So, if you’re going to recycle your batteries, save them up for one large trip. Or, there’s always the option of cutting down on waste by investing in rechargeable batteries, which should be recycled when they’re at the end of their life.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.