Impact of Batteries on the Environment Research Paper

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Batteries and the Environment


A Study of the Impact of Batteries on Waste and the Environment

The disposal of batteries can led to negative consequences for human health. There are various types of batteries and most contain some form of a heavy metal that react with chemical electrolytes to produce the battery's power. When batteries are improperly disposed of they can release these metals into the environment and contaminate the land, air, and water supplies. The most common heavy metals that can be found in batteries that have the worst adverse effects for human health are mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel. Most of the developed world has instituted regulations which aim to enforce proper disposal to limit contamination. However, some of the new generations of materials have yet to fall under these regulations. Any exposure to these heavy metals can lead to adverse health effects and even death. This analysis will provide an introduction to battery usage, disposal, and a literature review on the environmental effects and effects on human health that it can have on society.


Abstract 3

Introduction to Batteries 5

Types of Batteries 5

Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) 5

Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) 6

Lead Acid 6

Lithium Ion (Li-ion) 6

Lithium Ion Polymer (Li-ion Polymer) 6

Improper Battery Disposal 8

Literature Review 9

Conclusion and Recommendation 11

Works Cited 12

List of Figures

Figure 1 -- Characteristics of commonly used rechargeable batteries 7

Figure 2 - Toxic Metals in Li-ion Batteries 11

Introduction to Batteries

There are many different types of batteries that are produced for an even larger amount of applications. Any device that requires the use of electricity and is not directly powered by an electric grid of some form is most likely powered by some form of battery. A battery is simply defined as a combination of two or more cells that are electrically connected to work together in order to produce electric energy (, N.d.). Electricity is generated through a conversion from chemical energy directly into electrical energy. Each battery will contain different combinations cells that are connected by an electrolyte which allows the transfer of ions with different charges; one is positive (anode) and one is negative (cathode) (the terminals are generally marked on most batteries). The anode then undergoes an oxidation reaction in which two or more ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) from the electrolyte combine with the anode. This produces a compound that works by releasing one or more electrons (Brian, Bryant, & Pumphrey, N.d.). This analysis will conduct a literature review to determine some of the environmental effects that are associated with the most common types of batteries and their improper disposal.

Types of Batteries

Nickel Cadmium (NiCd)

Nickel Cadmium batteries represent a common battery used because they offer a long life, high discharge rate, and they are fairly inexpensive. The Nickel Cadmium Battery is rechargeable, so it can cycle repeatedly which also makes it a popular option (Bellis, N.d.).

Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH)

The NiMH battery has a higher density than the NiCD but it does not have as long as a cycle life. This type of battery is also rechargeable and is commonly found in laptops and cell phones. The NiMH battery does not contain any toxic metals and therefore is more environmentally friendly than other forms yet these batteries are relatively more expensive.

Lead Acid

The lead acid battery is the most economical way to produce electricity for different applications that require a significant amount of power. These are the batteries that are commonly found in automobiles and back-up power supplies. Although lead is a toxic substance, there have been regulations in place for over a decade that regulate this type of battery and its disposal.

Lithium Ion (Li-ion)

Lithium Ion is a quickly growing technology that is being used in more and more devices such as notebook computers and phones. Although there are many advantages to lithium ion, these types of batteries are relatively fragile and require a safety mechanism to protect against damages.

Lithium Ion Polymer (Li-ion Polymer)

These are basically the same technology as the li-ion however it is condensed into a smaller footprint. There are super-high capacity versions of these batteries but they are prohibitively expensive to be used for most applications.

Figure 1 -- Characteristics of commonly used rechargeable batteries (Battery University, N.d.)

Figure 2 - Battery Characteristics (Battery University, N.d.)

Improper Battery Disposal

There are many different options available to individual is most areas to discard their batteries. The correct way to dispose of a battery is to responsibly find an appropriate recycling center that can ensure that the batteries do not end up in landfills or as random trash. If batteries end up in landfills, the toxic substances that they contain can end up leaching into the soil and water and pollute lakes and streams to the point that they are unfit for drinking, swimming, and supporting wildlife (Natural Resources Defense Council, N.d.). There are several cases of contaminated drinking water that occur in the United States every year.

Just in regards to Mercury alone, across the United States, mercury pollution has contaminated eighteen million acres of lakes, estuaries, and wetlands (forty-three percent of the total), and nearly one and a half million river miles. From the years 2006 to 2008, the number of lake acres under environmental advisory increased by eighteen percent while the number of river miles increased by fifty two percent (Natural Resources Defense Council, N.d.). Furthermore, these figures only include the waterways and bodies of water that have been tested and the levels of Mercury reported. In 2008 alone, each state within the United States issued some form of fish consumption advisories. These advisories warn citizens to limit how often and how much they consume in regard to certain types of fish caught in local waters because there is a good chance that they are contaminated with Mercury at unacceptable levels according to EPA standards.

Incineration is another common method in which hazardous waste and toxic chemicals can enter into the water supply as well as nearly everywhere else. Burning trash has historically been a popular option for waste removal. This is primarily for the fact that the waste seems to just disappear into ash which is more convenient and takes up far less space than other options for waste removal. Even today with other superior options for waste removal, high temperature incinerators are commonly viewed as options for waste removal. However, High temperature combustion in these incinerators can release toxic metals like lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium from a wide range of waste products. Products such as batteries that are disposed of, can release toxins at roughly a rate of thirty-two thousand tons per year in airborne particles as well as another three hundred four thousand tons a year will be found in ash and the liquids produced just from one average sized commercial application incinerator (Greenpeace, 2004).

Literature Review

When batteries are disposed of improperly, toxic substances can enter the ecosystem through a variety of mechanisms as previously discussed. The human health effects of heavy metal exposure can be significant. These effects have been long known and in many regulations have been put in place to help reduce the amount of harmful metals that are released through waste such as the U.S. Battery Act of 1996 (Malavika, 2004). To prevent the release of hazardous substances into the environment, the Battery Act was signed into law on May 13, 1996. The law serves two purposes: to phase out the use of mercury in batteries, and to provide for the efficient and cost-effective collection and recycling or proper disposal of used nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries, used small sealed lead-acid (SSLA) batteries, and certain other regulated batteries.

The risk of pollution in modern recycling plants is low because of the enforcement of strict environmental, health and safety standards, emission monitoring, stack scrubbers, dust control, and waste treatment. Although metals such as mercury and lead have been phased out of industrialized nations, many of the developing countries have yet to put into place such stringent regulations. Because there are little regulations in these countries, many businesses take advantage of this because they can operate with significantly reduced costs as well as have access to inexpensive labor pools that do not generally have litigation rights.

Battery recycling contributes to almost 100 sites in the Blacksmith Institute's database which has been rated as the world's number one toxic pollution problems; potentially putting almost one million people at risk and geographically the largest numbers of polluted sites are in Southeast Asia, with Africa, Central and South America also contributing a substantial amount (Worst Polluted, 2012). Most of this toxic pollution has been derived by improper recycling of lead acid batteries. Developing nations often offer cheap substitutes to recycling in developed countries because companies there do not have to comply with the same regulations found in other countries. Furthermore, many of these countries are eager…

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