Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Closing the circle

Recycling rechargeable batteries and gadgets is getting a lot easier, and that means a lot less lead, mercury and cadmium polluting the environment.

By JUSTIN ELLIS, Staff Writer J
anuary 14, 2008

With so many gadgets taking up a part of people's lives these
days -- cell phones, digital cameras, portable media devices --
your fortunes can be won or lost by the blinking battery power

Rechargeable batteries make up the backbone of much of the
personal technology people use in everyday life from home to
the office. But once these devices and their batteries have
outlived their usefulness or been replaced, most people face a
conundrum -- tuck the gadget somewhere or throw it away.

While holding on to an old cell phone or camera battery just
increases household clutter, electronics and batteries thrown in
the trash can pose risks to the environment.

States have made strides to find proper ways to dispose of larger
electronics like computers, VCRs and TVs.

Now, a push from within the electronics industry and several
states, including Maine, has made it easier for consumers to
recycle their rechargeable batteries.

This month Maine became the third state in the nation to enact a
law creating free cell phone and cell phone battery recycling.
The law also makes it illegal to throw out old phones and

The new law requires cell phone retailers to accept old phones
and batteries for free, regardless of where they were purchased.
The batteries are handled through an organization called the
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. The nonprofit company
also accepts rechargeable batteries from other devices and
appliances, which in many cases can be accepted at retailers
such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot, or through municipalities.

Alan Hillman, who owns several Wireless Zone cell phone stores
in southern Maine, said most people don't know what to do with
their old phones and other gadgets, so they just keep them.

Hillman says he created a donation program for old phones prior
to the state law for that reason.

"There's really a lot of people who have a ton of these phones,"
he said. "It's an electronics item, so it feels kind of funny
throwing them out."

But Hillman suspects that consumers are also becoming more
conscious of their individual impact on the environment.

Maine has been slightly ahead of the curve in its efforts to deal
with the disposal of electronics.

In 2004, a state law made manufacturers share the cost and
responsibility for the disposal of items like TVs and computer

Rechargeable batteries can contain some of the same hazardous
ingredients, including lead, mercury or cadmium, that while not
dangerous when in use, can cause harm to the environment if
thrown away.

Through June of 2007, the state had recycled almost 6 million
pounds of TVs and computer monitors, according to Carole
Cifrino, who oversees electronic waste for the Maine Department
of Environmental Protection.

Some businesses already offer battery recycling programs, but
the new law mandates that businesses offer the service free to
customers and partner with an organization that can collect the
cell phone batteries.

"It's a first step," she said. "I think people in Maine are generally
thinking about recycling now."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a similar "e--
cycling" program that partners with national companies such as
Best Buy, LG Electronics, AT&T, Wal-Mart and Dell Computers to
recycle computers, cell phones, TVs and other electronics.

According to the EPA, in 2007 more than 47 million pounds of
electronics were reused or recycled.

The EPA estimates the amount of greenhouse gas not released
into the air would be equivalent to keeping roughly 32,000 cars
off the roads annually.

Cell phone retailers, electronics chains and other businesses use
organizations such as the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp.
to reuse old batteries.

The organization sends retailers customized boxes for batteries
and cell phones, which are then shipped to service centers to be
processed, said Norm England, CEO of the Rechargeable Battery
Recycling Corp.

The company accepts lithium ion, nickel cadmium and nickel
metal hydride batteries among others used in various products,
including laptops, power tools, cameras and cell phones.

Though some batteries are disassembled and disposed of, some
cell phones are refurbished and sent for use in Third World
countries or to help victims of domestic violence, England said.

England said the reason the program can be offered free of
charge to consumers and retailers is because it's funded by
manufacturers of batteries and devices that use batteries.

The organization has been in business since the mid-1990s, but
England said they've never been more busy than now.

"In the last 18 months, I've never seen such a rush for corporate
America to become 'green,'" he said.

Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director for
JupiterResearch, said technology companies are adopting more
environmentally friendly practices in response to changes in the
market and a need to be responsible for their aging devices.

"Smart companies are going to be ahead of it," he said, by
creating technology that is "functional, but also environmentally

At the same time Gartenberg said there has been a proliferation
in personal technology in recent years, from portable media
players to laptops, Blackberries, cameras, handheld games and
cell phones.

Gartenberg said the standard power source now for most
devices is a rechargeable battery.

Gartenberg said most people would be shocked when they start
to think of the scope and number of devices that rely on
rechargeable batteries in their home.

"It starts to add up and you say 'Wow, I've got lots of these
rechargeable batteries in my household,'" Gartenberg said. "But
they only have a finite lifespan."

Staff Writer Justin Ellis can be contacted at 791-6380 or at:


Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

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