Tighter Regulations Setting Battery Recycling Back a Decade, Sending Batteries Back to Landfills


Photo via moria via Flickr CC

About a week ago, we caught word from 3r Living, an eco-friendly home decor and lifestyle store and website, that they're having a real problem with tightened regulations from the Department of Transportation on shipping batteries for recycling. The stricter regulations include that each individual battery must be either placed in its own plastic bag or have both terminals taped off. This makes battery recycling an expensive hassle, especially when companies like 3r Living are collecting large numbers of batteries from their customers to send in for recycling. 3r Living is unhappily planning to stop sending batteries to their primary recycler, Battery Solutions, and possibly stop collecting and recycling them all together. And they fear many other companies will be doing the same. So we got ahold of Battery Solutions to find out exactly what's up with the new rules. The news isn't good.

The Problem with DOT's Regulations on Battery Recycling

Mark Caserta from 3r Living wrote in with a big concern:

As you know, 3r Living collects batteries, at our own cost, and sends them via fedex in a special bucket to Battery Solutions. Recently, we received notices from Battery Solutions that Federal law requires that every battery sent to their facility must either be bagged individually in plastic or have both terminals taped. Yes, that's right, the Federal government is requiring people to waste plastic in order to recycle batteries. Even worse, yesterday I received a report from DOT after an inspection they did at Battery Solutions' facility. They report detailed our my "violations" and warned that 3r Living could be fined up to $50,000 next time. This means that we are going to STOP sending batteries to Battery Solutions and we may stop collecting batteries, altogether, unless something is done.

There are some concerns about batteries heating up and perhaps exploding. Most of it is unfounded, although care should be taken with some batteries.

I wanted to pass along the rules that were sited, along with contact info for Battery Solutions, in case you were interested in the story. As I said, 3r Living loses money on battery recycling, but we think that Battery Recycling companies do good work and we would hate to see this industry ruined by a stupid rule.

Hazardous Materials Regulations (HMR) Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Parts 171-180.

Sections 5123 and 5124 of Title 49, United States Code provide for civil and criminal penalties for any violation of the HMR.

This warning letter has been issued under the provisions of 49 CFR 107.309.


We decided to get a hold of Battery Solutions and find out what the regulations mean, and the impact they're having. The answers were not something we were excited to hear.

The Impact of DOT's Battery Recycling Regulations

Jeremy Sova and John Herschlean of Battery Solutions responded right away to our call. They're as frustrated at the regulations as the companies and consumers who are increasingly wanting to recycle their batteries.

Here's the deal:
The DOT regulations deal with the transportation of all batteries, but in the past they've mainly focused on wet cell batteries, rather than dry cell batteries - these are, for instance, the familiar AA type of batteries we use daily. While millions of shipments of batteries that go to recyclers every year, last year there was an incident on one truck that caught fire and it appears that the fire is traced back to a lead acid battery - a wet cell battery - on the truck.

Lead acid batteries are known to be dangerous. However, it's been shown typical alkaline batteries that we use in our flashlights and remote controls don't produce the dangerous heat that can cause fire. Yet the DOT has tightened regulations on all batteries across the board, including the regulation that they need to be shipped separately.

Sova stated, "They're making some unnecessary interpretation of issues that don't concern safety whatsoever. [We and our] competitors, over the years in millions of shipments, haven't had anything happen and then one truck burns - that has an acknowledged dangerous material on it - and everything gets regulated across the board."

Setting Back Battery Recycling by a Decade
Sova stated that this tightening of transportation regulation for all battery types has set the battery recycling industry back a decade, and is sending millions of pounds of batteries to landfills.

Municipalities often have battery collection programs that direct batteries to their hazardous waste facilities, which then contract with battery recyclers for the recycling process. However, with tightening budgets and the extra hassles of the rules, they don't have the resources to maintain the programs. Many cities and states are cutting way back on their recycling programs and batteries are going straight to landfill.

Yet, in a states that have mandated battery recycling such as California (which has a state-wide mandate that all batteries must be recycled), this presents a conundrum. How do they call off their battery recycling programs until there is more money in the budget when they have this mandate to follow? It leads to concerns that batteries will be shipped across state lines and dumped in Arizona landfills instead.

Beyond Cost, Consumers Worried About Responsibility
Cost set aside, there is another concern that keeps people from wanting to recycle batteries thanks to the inappropriately tightened regulations. Many people don't know or are unable to easily identify the different types of batteries and so sort and ship them incorrectly. If it is found that they've shipped them incorrectly, they can face huge fines. That leads to many businesses and groups that recycle not wanting to take on the responsibility, and are therefore ending their programs.

Educating the DOT, and the Long Haul Back to Better Recycling
While battery recycling facilities are working to educate the DOT inspectors about the science and safety behind battery shipments, that doesn't translate into regulation changes. Herschlean and Sova both feel that it'll be several years before any progress might be made to clarify regulations and get our program back on track. They point to the European Union which they say is about 15 years ahead of us in their recycling programs, and they don't have this kind of regulation in place.

"They allow hauling of mixed batteries without terminals being protected and no one would accuse them on being soft on regulation or environment. It's just logical and this isn't," said Sova. "They have a really good infrastructure in place; we were catching [up with] them and then this took place. Millions of pounds of alkaine batteries are going to landfill when they shouldn't be."

The shift came in September of last year, when we saw reports and releases coming out about how the "new" regulations would affect battery recycling for everything from batteries to cell phones. As Sullivan states, it seems the EPA and DOT are on different wavelengths about priorities with what goes in landfills.

Sova emphasized how upsetting this is because Battery Solutions is passionate about what they do and has a zero landfill policy. More recyclers, they fear, will simply collect the batteries and send them off to landfill, rather than actually recycling them.

Finding Answers for Battery Recycling Wherever Possible
One solution Battery Solutions has in place is a kit purchasable on their website that instructs users exactly how to send in their batteries and provides all the necessary materials. They've found that individual consumers almost universally follow the instructions properly, but that commercial operations often do not. It will take a lot of education and budget to educate everyone to follow the new rules, and that, along with reluctance from those sending in the batteries and the time it'll take to overhaul the regulations, means more batteries heading to landfills and bad news for all of us.

More on Recycling Batteries in the Meantime
How and Where to Recycle Alkaline Batteries
How to Recycle Batteries on Earth Day
Seo Says: Recycle Those Rechargeables!

Tags: Batteries | E-Waste | Recycling