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Battery Product Stewardship: A Way Forward for Waste Management

One unlabeled battery sits vertically in the center of a reddish-pink background

With the rise of smartphones, cordless appliances, and electric vehicles, people are using more batteries in their everyday lives. As a result, more batteries are entering our waste management stream. Batteries contain hazardous materials, and when they enter the waste stream without proper maintenance or disposal, they can cause harm to the environment and create multiple safety issues at waste management facilities. 

In 2020 alone, King County disposed over 188,000 pounds of household batteries, a total of nearly 18% of its hazardous waste collection. In total, 914,000 pounds of household batteries were improperly disposed of as municipal waste in King County.

This increased demand for and use of batteries, along with a lack of convenient disposal options for batteries of all kinds, present a number of concerns for waste management streams and facilities. Battery product stewardship can address these concerns.  

How does product stewardship work?

Product stewardship, also known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), is the act of minimizing the health, safety, environmental, and social impacts of a product and its packaging throughout its life cycle.  One example is PaintCare, a paint stewardship program adopted in Washington state in 2019 with the help of Haz Waste Program and community partners. Operating since April 2021, PaintCare provides options for residents to safely recycle and dispose of paints, stains, and oils. 

Product stewardship programs:

  • Ensure manufacturers are responsible for the lifecycle of their products, from design to packaging to disposal
  • Incentivize manufacturers to make products that last longer or are easier to recycle
  • Reduce costs for local governments and ratepayers by making manufacturers financially responsible for products
  • Allow consumers to have consistent, easy access to recycling options
  • Increase products being recycled.

A specific battery product stewardship program would ensure manufacturers are responsible for the life cycle of batteries. With government oversight, manufacturers would set up a statewide system for the recycling and disposal of batteries. Consumers would have consistent, easy access to recycling options, leading to more batteries being recycled and fewer batteries in waste streams. 

What are the dangers of improper battery disposal?

Fires at waste management facilities resulting from improper battery disposal pose one of the biggest safety hazards Once batteries arrive at waste management facilities, they are exposed to conditions ideal for battery ignition, including oxygen and sparks from landing on “tipping floors” where waste is dumped. These fires also occur at landfills, other waste management industry locations, and in waste transportation vehicles.

Studies of waste management facilities suggest that battery-related ignitions cause more than 50% of fires at waste management facilities and continue to be a national concern for recycling centers across the country. In 2020, fire risk management firm Fire Rover estimated that waste management facilities in the U.S. and Canada experienced a total of 2,620 fires with this trend expected to continue.

Batteries also contain toxic materials, such as mercury, lead, and sulfuric access. When improperly stored or disposed, these materials end up in landfills, where they may leak and pose environmental risks. 

What are the financial benefits of battery product stewardship programs? 

Battery disposal is a labor-intensive process for local hazardous waste programs to manage. In addition to sorting and taping batteries to prevent fires, local governments are also responsible for the costs associated with fire prevention and damage. Battery product stewardship programs alleviate this burden by shifting financial responsibility onto manufacturers for the disposal process, including identifying battery chemistries and offering education for proper disposal.

The future of battery product stewardship

Battery product stewardship legislation is an ongoing process and would improve battery recycling for all. Many states are leading this charge for better battery management to reduce the cost and burden of improper battery disposal on the solid waste management system, including Washington.

To learn more about battery product stewardship and extended producer responsibility, visit the the Haz Waste Program's Policy and Planning site.

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