I never gave much thought to what happens to worn-out car and truck parts, as I always have traded in or sold one vehicle for the next. In this article, I review the lifecycle of one commonly replaced vehicle part: the automotive battery.
According to industry research firm, IHS Automotive, there were 253 million cars on the road in the US in 2014. Add to that all the vehicles that use automotive batteries (trucks, boats, construction, farm and other vehicles), and that’s a lot of batteries for our recycling and waste industries to deal with.
Vehicle batteries are made of a plastic container, internal plates made of lead, plate separators made of synthetic insulating material, electrolyte (a dilute solution of sulfuric acid and water, better known as battery acid), and lead terminals (the connection point between the battery and the vehicle). Unlike household batteries, lead-acid automotive batteries cannot go into the trash or landfill because they are so toxic. Lead is far more toxic than the materials in household lithium ion batteries. As reported by the Royal Society of Chemistry, overexposure to lead by humans and animals can cause irreversible blood, brain, kidney, and liver damage. Maine state law forbids the improper disposal of lead-acid batteries.
The good news, as noted by Battery Council International, is that 98 percent of toxic battery lead is recycled and new lead-acid batteries contain 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic. According to earth911.com, vehicle batteries are the most recycled products in the US. To see how lead-acid batteries are recycled, go to youtube.com and search for Discovery / Science Channel’s “How It’s Made” Recycling Car Batteries episode. In a promising development, scientists at MIT have proposed a system that recycles lead from automotive batteries into solar cells to generate electricity.
If you’re replacing a dead battery, you can simply trade it in at the store or dealership where you are buying a new one. Most stores will recycle it at no additional cost to you. Some auto parts retailers will charge you a deposit on a new battery. Then, when it no longer works and you return it to that same retailer, you will get your deposit back. To earn cash back on your old battery, take it to a scrap yard. For a list of scrap yards near you, visit http://www.autopartshunt.com/junkyards-near-me Scrap yards in Waldoboro and Topsham are the closest ones to readers in Lincoln County. The Nobleboro, Waldoboro, and Bristol transfer stations do accept vehicle batteries. Please check with an attendant at your town’s transfer station for guidance on where to place it and if there is a fee.
As for electric vehicle (EV) and hybrid batteries, the automotive and recycling industries are gearing up to reuse and recycle them. The lithium-ion batteries used in most electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids and the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in most conventional hybrids are not considered toxic. This doesn’t mean they should be thrown in the trash. As responsible consumers, we need to be mindful of the waste management hierarchy established by the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/waste/nonhaz/municipal/hierarchy.htm). The hierarchy places emphasis in order of preference, to reduce, reuse, recycle, recover energy, and dispose of solid and hazardous waste in an appropriate facility. Toward the goal of reuse, several power utilities and car manufacturers are investigating extending the life of EV and hybrid batteries after they are no longer able to power a vehicle. They can still crank out a considerable amount of electric power and could be used to store electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels. Edmunds.com reports that the lithium-ion batteries are being tested to provide backup power to hospitals, restaurants, and retail centers.
Watch this column for future articles on recycling and reusing tires and motor vehicles.
By Linda Shaffer, Member of the Keep Pemaquid Peninsula Beautiful Steering Committee