EcoWaste Coalition Cautions against Unsafe Disposal of Batteries

Quezon City. “Do not throw spent batteries in the regular trash.”

This is the advice of a public interest environmental network campaigning for chemical safety in an effort to discourage consumers from mixing spent batteries, especially miniature button cell batteries that contain mercury and other toxic metals, with usual household discards.

Button cell batteries are small, light-weight and silver colored batteries in the shape of a button or coin that are commonly used in wrist watches, pocket calculators, hearing aids, pace makers, bicycle speedometer, cameras, children’s toys and games and other portable electronic devices. They come in various sizes and those with added mercury such as alkaline manganese, silver oxide, zinc-air and mercuric oxide can contain as much as 5 to 25 milligrams of the toxic metal.

“By ensuring that spent batteries are separated from typical discards and managed separately and safely as required by law, we prevent these hazardous materials from being thrown or burned in dumpsites and thus avoid mercury from being released into the environment,” said Thony Dizon, Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition’s Project PROTECT (People Responding and Organizing against Toxic Chemical Threats).

“Sometimes bad things come in small packages,” said Dr. Joe DiGangi, policy adviser of the International POPs Elimination Network (IPEN). “Mercury button batteries look small, but their toxic cargo can irreversibly damage the brain. Their toxic content has captured the attention of the world as global mercury treaty negotiations move forward to eliminate all human sources of mercury.”

The EcoWaste Coalition drew attention to the toxic threat from improper battery disposal following a mini-survey confirming that spent batteries that potentially contain mercury and other toxic substances are commonly disposed as if these were benign regular waste.

A random survey conducted by the EcoWaste Coalition’s “AlerToxic Patrol” from June 21 to 23, 2010 involving watch stores and repair shops in Metro Manila shows that spent button cell batteries are generally thrown into the regular waste bins, which in turn are hauled into the dumpsites.

The watch stores and repair shops are located in Binondo, Sta. Cruz, Quiapo and Sampaloc in Manila and in the commercial hubs of the cities of Caloocan, Makati, Malabon, Navotas, Pasay, Quezon and Taguig, in the municipality of Pateros and also in Angono and Cainta, Rizal.

Of the 70 watch stores and repair shops surveyed, most said that spent batteries are by and large tossed in the bin. However, silver oxide batteries are often kept and sold to recyclers for as much as P350 per camera film canister. It is not known under what conditions the silver-containing discarded batteries are recycled.

All surveyed shops offer non-mercury button cell batteries such as lithium batteries. However, consumers will need to watch out for “fake” items that are sold cheaply. While alkaline button cell batteries are also available, it is not clear if these are mercury-free due to insufficient product information.

The EcoWaste Coalition issued the eco-advisory as part of its mission to create public awareness on the health and environmental hazards of mercury-added products, promote mercury-free alternatives and drum up support for the environmentally-sound management of mercury-containing waste.

It will be recalled that the EcoWaste Coalition had on several occasions raised the problem with the unregulated disposal and recycling of spent compact, linear and circular fluorescent lamps containing mercury, a toxic metal that can damage the brain and the nervous system and can bio-accumulate in fish and other marine species.

To reduce mercury pollution and human exposure from improper battery disposal, the EcoWaste Coalition has identified several action steps that consumers can do. These are:

1. Go for button cell batteries that are mercury-free such as lithium. Some mercury-free batteries will have the “0% Hg Cell” mark.

2. Read carefully the product safety precautions and instructions.

3. Keep batteries out of children’s reach as they pose a choking hazard.

4. Put spent batteries in a sealed childproof container to prevent accidental ingestion.

5. If swallowed, promptly see a physician.

6. Label the container with “Toxic: Batteries with Mercury” and keep in a cool, well-ventilated dry place for temporary storage.

7. Do not handle corroded batteries with bare hands. Use rubber gloves.

8. Do not throw spent batteries in the regular trash.

9. Do not burn mercury-containing waste as the mercury will vaporize and pollute the air.

10. Do not dump spent button cell batteries to prevent the discharge of mercury into the air, water and soil.

To fully address the problem with battery waste disposal, the EcoWaste Coalition further urges the battery industry to switch to clean production and to put in place take back systems for their products at the end of their useful lives.