RV-related activities can consume a lot of batteries: flashlights, data storage devices, cameras, portable GPS units, and fire, LP and carbon monoxide detectors all have batteries that will eventually reach the end of their useful lives. Add in rechargeable batteries in portable tools, cellular telephones and laptop computers, and we can get stuck with a lot of little dead batteries. And don’t forget, our RVs themselves have even bigger batteries that can also give up the ghost, leaving a big, heavy corpse behind.
Depending on the materials used in its manufacture, a dead battery can actually be a hazard to health and the environment if disposed of improperly. Button cell batteries found in hearing aids, watches, calculators, some cameras and even greeting cards may contain silver oxide, even mercury. Nickel-cadmium (NiCads) found in some flashlights, laptop computers, power tools, and some cellphones are also considered a hazardous waste. Also classified as hazardous waste are lead acid batteries, both sealed and refillable.
What to do with dead batteries that are hazardous waste? Most medium to large cities have hazardous waste collection programs that will accept these kinds of batteries. If you have a collection center near where you live, simply make it a point to bring them in for proper handling. Full-time RVers who are on the road may find the Internet a good place to find disposal sites. An excellent resource is online at earth911.org. The website helps you find recycling and disposal centers for all kinds of materials, and a search function lets you look for nearby centers based on city and state, or by zip code.
Not all batteries are considered hazardous waste. Carbon zinc cells, the common standard for flashlights, nickel metal hydride rechargeables, lithium (and lithium ion), and alkaline batteries (both rechargeable and single use) are considered to be “landfillable” and hence can be disposed of safely with household trash. Lithium batteries can be recycled, and that much less going into the waste stream is a good thing—check out the earth911.org site for a recycle location near you.
What about lead-acid batteries, like those used for starting your tow vehicle or handling “deep-cycle” assignments in your motorhome? You’ll find many outfits will actually pay you to bring these back in for recycling. It’s not uncommon to get five bucks or better for each of these big berthas. Give a call to a local auto parts store and ask about their policy.
Regardless of the type of battery you recycle, there are precautions to be observed. If you hold onto your batteries for a while, waiting to take them in, it’s a good idea to put a piece of tape over each battery terminal. This will prevent the battery from shorting against another and creating a potential fire hazard.
When dealing with lead-acid batteries, remember, they contain acid that can eat holes in clothing, and worse, damage your eyes and skin. It’s best to wear gloves and eye protection when handling these critters, and lift carefully: A deep-cycle or starting battery is heavy and you can strain your back in a hurry. Wash your hands after handling lead-acid batteries.
What happens to your batteries after you turn them in at a collection center? The lead in lead-acid batteries is melted down and often ends up as a new battery. The plastic cases are decontaminated, ground up, and often remanufactured as case material for new batteries. The acid-containing electrolyte may be refined for use as battery electrolyte, or neutralized and the byproduct used in other industrial products.
Rechargeable batteries such as NiCads and nickel metal hydrides are often melted at high temperatures, allowing the heavy metals to be recovered and reused. Sad to say, those alkaline and carbon zinc batteries that make their way to a recycling center will simply find their way into a suitable landfill disposal site.
To that end, one way to make your battery consumption more earth-friendly is to limit battery use where you can. LED flashlights are far more energy efficient than the old-style incandescent bulb type—their batteries will last much longer. Rechargeable batteries also will last longer than single-use batteries.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics, and of Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit icanrv.com for more information.
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