The complicated battery recycling process in Washington state

But many people don’t know how, or don’t have the resources, to properly dispose of batteries. People involved in King County’s recycling and hazardous waste management, as well as environmental advocates, fear that existing state and state systems and voluntary producer take-back efforts will fail to keep up with demand so safe. Consumers need more help to dispose of batteries safely, economically and fairly.

“We are taking all these truly extraordinary steps to help us and improve our environment. And now we realize that these advances have some consequences, for example we don’t really have a system set up to handle all of these battery-containing products we’re creating, ”said Tristen Gardner, who is in charge of battery policy for the county.

A big increase in battery usage and potential harm

King County has been collecting hazardous waste from at least 2.1 million residents and 60,000 businesses in 38 cities, unincorporated areas and two tribal nations and has been collecting batteries for at least 15 years. In 2019, the Hazardous Waste Management Program collected 90,000 pounds of batteries from households and 4,000 pounds from businesses. Household batteries make up nearly 18% of King County’s hazardous waste collection.

Gardner said around 200,000 pounds of batteries were disposed of properly in 2020. That is how many batteries are used in King County, which would give a better idea of ​​proper disposal rates.

County estimates 914,000 pounds of rechargeable and disposable household batteries were sent to the Cedar Hills regional landfill in 2019 – about three times as many as in 2011, when 296,000 tons were sent there.

At the state level, the Department of Ecology reports that hazardous waste facilities working with households and small businesses collected 31 percent more batteries between 2016 and 2021. “The amount of batteries in the waste stream is too small to detect any trends. But we know that the use of batteries in consumer goods is growing exponentially, ”said Dave Bennett of Ecology.

This increase puts battery management “near the top” of concerns for people thinking about recycling and product management, said Adrian Tan, head of policy and market development for the King County Solid Waste Division. . Based on what his colleagues see in landfills, people don’t dispose of batteries well.

A big cause for concern is that batteries can set fires at waste transfer stations, landfills, or even the back of trucks, putting employees at risk and requiring taxpayer funds to clean up, Tan said. When batteries push and compact, they can explode and catch fire, especially those rechargeable batteries that shouldn’t end up in the trash or recycling bins on the sidewalk.

Ecology doesn’t track data on fires at transfer stations, trucks, or waste disposal facilities, but at least eight recent Washington fires were likely caused by batteries. An EPA study published in July 2021 cites a few: In April 2018, a hoverboard battery in the back of a garbage truck in the Bellevue area ignited during transit, prompting the driver to unload the truck. whole load in the middle of the road. A 2018 lithium-ion-related fire at Simon Metals in Tacoma caused approximately $ 100,000 in damage and required seven fire trucks to run. Just this month, a fire broke out at a Seattle-area transfer station that is still under investigation but was connected to batteries, Gardner said. For their part, the county purchased FireRover infrared monitoring systems to identify battery fires in facilities.

Battery chemicals can also harm the environment. Landfills are concerned about the leaking of corrosive and toxic materials into streams where salmon swim, for example.

Battery recycling is complicated

To properly dispose of a battery in King County, people have a few options, all of which require time, cost and effort. And the process is complex, because different batteries require different disposal methods.

Tan indicates the Seattle-based Ridwell waste collection company. “We are seeing programs like Ridwell, which is a private company, [serving people who] pay to get additional material collected and people are willing to do so. This, of course, is not accessible to everyone. It is expensive … but I think it shows that people want to do the right thing … but we are unable to provide the services at the level that the residents would like to see. “

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