Going Green / Powering battery recycling in Erie County
Cynthia Frame-Endre, Coalition president and founder
Photo by kc kratt
Every year, Americans purchase nearly three billion dry cell batteries, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency—and the vast majority of these end up in landfill. About one in five dry cell batteries purchased are rechargeable, meaning they can be reused until they reach the end of their lifespan, and then recycled through drop-off at stores like Best Buy, Lowe’s, or Home Depot. But for the four-fifths that are single-use alkaline batteries, there is no simple, cost-effective way to recycle—and that’s what the Coalition of Positively Charged People is hoping to change in Western New York.
In 2013, Coalition president and founder Cynthia Frame-Endres noted that her family, which included young children, was burning through batteries for their toys and gadgets. “We’re not crazy green, but we recycle and we’re thoughtful about things,” she says. “It was a shock to me there was no battery recycling program, and I had to figure out why. Then it became intriguing: what are rechargeables, why do they have a recycling law, and why isn’t there a law for alkaline batteries?”
The legislation she’s referring to—the New York State Rechargeable Battery Recycling Act passed in 2010—bans the disposal of used rechargeable batteries as waste and compels manufacturers to take returns and recycle them. “The most effective and appropriate method to promote the reduction of toxic metals from rechargeable battery disposal is to require the battery industry to accept the financial responsibility for the environmentally sound collection, transportation, and recycling or proper disposal of discarded rechargeable batteries,” the law states.
“For a boring old piece of legislation, they’re really upset about rechargeable batteries going into our waste stream,” Frame-Endres says.
That’s the type of passion and activism she’s hoping the Coalition will ignite. Formally launched last year, the organization became a 501(c)3 nonprofit this fall, with a mission to create a community and environmentally friendly alkaline battery recycling program in Erie County. That starts with outreach, both to community members and to state lawmakers, who will likely consider a recycling bill again next term. First introduced in 2015 by Senator Tony Avella of Queens, the bill would establish a battery recycling program across New York State, but, according to Frame-Endres, it has significant flaws.
“The flaws are around collection,” she says. “It says you need a minimum of two collection spots per county. That could be West Seneca and Tonawanda, and that’s not very many when people want things to be convenient. We’ve got to figure that out.”
To educate people, the Coalition participates in festivals and other events around the area, where Frame-Endres discusses the difference between alkaline and rechargeable, collects used batteries, and demonstrates the “Amazing Battery Chute,” a device that drops a battery into one of three buckets—recycle, landfill, or incinerate—demonstrating the disposal options and what each means for the environment.
“Billions of single-use batteries go into landfill every year,” she says. “It’s a small thing—just a little battery—but it touches on product stewardship and the circular economy, as well as product design. Are we designing things to be recycled?”
Currently, there are only two facilities in the United States that can recycle household batteries: Retriev Technologies in Lancaster, Ohio, and Battery Solutions in Howell, Michigan. During Retriev’s recycling process for alkaline batteries (which differs for lithium ion, lead acid, and other types), the products are crushed and divided into two streams: steel from the casing and a mixture of manganese oxide and zinc, which create the positive and negative electrodes. The steel is then cleaned and sold to be made into new products, while the minerals are further refined, separated, and eventually sold, taking the place of newly mined minerals in other products.
The problem, and the reason battery recycling isn’t more common, is that zinc and manganese are “two of the more plentiful minerals on the planet,” Frame-Endres says. “So, manufacturers say, ‘I could just get that from a mine somewhere and it’s really cheap.’ Mining may be cheap, but the environmental costs are ridiculous.”
As it pushes for a statewide recycling program, the Coalition has partnered with area organizations and events to collect old batteries and send them to Retriev to be recycled. You’ll find public drop-off locations at Tifft Nature Preserve, the Tri-Main Center, the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, and ShopCraft on Elmwood, as well as at events throughout the year, such as Allentown First Fridays, environmental fairs, and summer festivals. Several organizations also work with the Coalition to host battery collections for employees.
Since it launched, the Coalition has collected and recycled more than 1,000 pounds of batteries; 500 pounds were recycled from the Tri-Main Center alone. The project—which has earned grants from the Pollination Project and the Niagara Frontier Section of the Air and Waste Management Association—remains a labor of love for Frame-Endres, a stay-at-home mom and former preservation librarian, and her volunteer board.
“It’s amazing that [our individual and business partners] are so committed and understand what we’re doing,” she says. “I have this idea that we’re going to have a groundswell in the Buffalo area of battery recycling, and people will be saying, ‘Yeah, we get this!’ and it’ll be a big voice to make a big change.”
To get involved, visit coalitionpositive.org.
Matthew Biddle is a Tonawanda-based writer and frequent Spree contributor. Tweet him @matthew_biddle.