When I was a kid I made a flashlight out of D battery, a flashlight bulb, a small piece of wire used to tie a bread bag and scotch tape. Now this wasn’t rocket scientist stuff nor was I on track to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but for an eight year old it was a proud achievement. I used my homemade flashlight to read MAD Magazine under the covers when I was supposed to go to sleep. It worked great for several days until I fell asleep one night and forgot to disconnect the bulb from the battery.
Being eight years old with no income or a car I did all my battery shopping in the house so over the next couple of weeks I “borrowed” batteries from my Dad’s flashlight, and my sisters toys until I had exhausted the household supply. Little did I know there would be a day of reckoning with my Dad when all the flashlights in the house no longer functioned. Fortunately for me I had younger sisters that I could implicate or at least create some amount of reasonable doubt.
As I type this on my four-year old computer I am watching my battery drain to zero. After years of charging and probably overcharging, the battery is now good for only thirty minutes of juice. My cellphone is in the same boat. Apple has figured out how to make their phones obsolete after about two years by draining the batteries. I call it planned obsolescence, Apple stock holders call it the genius of Steve Jobs. However you describe it our lives, now more than ever, run on the power of batteries.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each year Americans throw away more than three billion batteries. That’s 180,000 tons of batteries and more than 86,000 tons of those are single use alkaline batteries. And where do all those batteries end up? In our landfills.
Batteries aren’t compostable trash, they are a hazardous waste. Sealed inside the alkaline cell are harmful materials which we don’t come into contact with during normal use. But when the battery enters a landfill, and the casing is crushed it releases mercury and other toxins into the environment, both the air and the water. There are also other heavy metals contained in batteries namely nickel, cadmium, cobalt and lead, none of which are good for our health or the environment. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, cadmium can cause lung damage, kidney disease and death, while lead can damage our kidneys, nervous system and reproductive systems.
We are facing many environmental challenges in the future not the least of which is global warming which scientists just released today that Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016. Our disposable economy may be convenient, and easy on our bank accounts but there is a price someone will have to pay. It may not be you or I today but it could be our children, or maybe our grandchildren. The solutions aren’t simple and they are certainly less convenient than throwing away that cheap battery in our smoke detector and buying a new one without any thought to the long-term repercussions. Maybe it is time we all think a little further out than just today.