What happens when you throw away pencil cells?

Study reveals how tossing of dry cell batteries in our dustbins poisons the environment.
The evolving framework of end-of-life battery management could be inclusive of the informal chain of collectors and segregators. (Image: Toxics Link) The evolving framework of end-of-life battery management could be inclusive of the informal chain of collectors and segregators. (Image: Toxics Link)

A recent study by Toxics Link, an environmental research and advocacy organisation on batteries titled Dead and buried: A situational analysis of battery waste management in India estimates that 2.7 billion pieces of dry cell batteries are being consumed annually in India. The report talks about their use in a variety of products and devices ranging from cars to mobiles, laptops, watches, television remotes, toys, medical devices and inverters. It is near impossible to not use some kind of chargers and batteries now. Not just that, in recent times, there is a significant focus on renewable energy, leading to a surge in demand for batteries by this sector.

Indian market is still dominated by non-rechargeable batteries, mainly because they are cheaper and are preferred over the expensive ones. Of the dry cell batteries, zinc-carbon cells account for 97 percent of the market share. These batteries contain a variety of heavy metals and other chemicals like cadmium, nickel, lead, mercury, copper, zinc, manganese or lithium. Most of the “dead” zinc-carbon cells reach landfills and the heavy metals and chemicals in them leach into the surrounding soil, surface and groundwater, thus contaminating the food we eat or the air we breathe, compromising public health.

There is a lack of scientifically designed landfills in the country to treat them better since many of these metals are recognised as highly toxic and known to damage the nervous system, kidneys, cause cancer and birth defects.

According to The Association of Indian Dry Cell Manufacturers (AIDCM), rural areas accounted for a majority of the volume sales share of the Indian dry cell battery market, thereby raising the concern about toxic materials leaching not just in landfills but also in agricultural fields.

“Though batteries like the ones used in mobiles or automobiles or storage for solar energy have longer lifespans, smaller batteries used in flashlights or clocks or remotes have relatively shorter usage life, meaning that they join the waste stream quicker. Recycling of batteries and disposal have been a critical issue globally, but the concern in India is probably greater as here the small battery market is dominated by single-use batteries or primary cells, in comparison to most other countries where rechargeable batteries dominate. In India, huge numbers of used or spent batteries get discarded with household waste as there is little or no monetary value attached to it,” says the report authored by Priti Mahesh and Manjusha Mukherjee.

Eighty six percent of Delhiites not aware of dry cell battery hazards

The study also involved primary survey among 400 households in Delhi on the end-of-life household batteries. This helped trace down the entire supply chain process of these end-of-life household batteries excluding lead acid and button cell batteries. The attempt was to understand the collection, recycling and disposal practices in Delhi. It found that at least nine of every 10 Delhiites dump the batteries after use in dustbins along with other household wastes.

Nearly 86 percent of the people are not aware of the hazards associated with dry cell batteries used by them in portable devices every day. About 92.5 percent of the people said they throw the batteries in common household dustbins after use.

Poor end-of-life battery management

In India, there is a complete absence of a comprehensive regulatory framework and infrastructure for sound management of end-of-life dry cell batteries. The study points to the lack of a proper management system for the batteries used in households. These are wastes categorised as household hazardous, yet citizens are unaware of it due to lack of instruction or information on them.

As per the report, the current Municipal Waste Rules, 2016 include batteries as part of domestic hazardous waste but there are no collection systems or recycling facilities to manage these batteries which are generated in millions annually. Sadly, the Solid Waste Management rule never specifies any separate segregation or deposit centre for batteries and all provisions are directed for aggregated domestic hazardous waste. There is no mandate for extended producer responsibility (EPR) for small battery producers or even recycling of battery resources through any other formal network.

Lack of scientifically designed landfills in the country also adds to the concern of leaching of toxic materials from spent batteries. Apart from the toxicity issue, the used or spent single-use batteries are also an issue of concern as they contain many non-renewable resources and landfilling them would mean losing out on those resources. This could have gone a long way in accounting of reducing environmental impacts and resource recovery.

Informal recycling, which was primarily handling this waste until a few years back, has also hit roadblocks, which means that the waste is currently completely relegated to landfills. The already brimming landfills in cities are now being further burdened by these batteries. This improper disposal unnecessarily squanders resources and energy, represents a missed opportunity for recycling jobs and can result in groundwater and air contamination. Also, though the study did not investigate this aspect, there might be huge concerns about low-quality batteries being dumped in the country.

Study recommendations

Battery recycling is virtually non-existent in India even when resource conservation potential of battery recycling is huge. Current disposal system of batteries in India is certainly not geared towards recycling and resource recovery. The report suggests that through recycling of discarded zinc-carbon cells, efficient recovery can extract 15025.42 tonnes of zinc, 15258.07 tonnes of manganese and 10848.50 tonnes of steel along with 2.4 billion graphite rods from dry used cell batteries per year in India. Efforts have to be made to support recycling through government subsidies, product stewardship and disposal costs.

The study findings clearly says that household battery waste management is a concern which needs to be looked at. Through battery EPR programmes, manufacturers can provide consumers with a convenient way to responsibly manage discarded batteries. With producer funding, EPR can offer an effective, sustainable financing system that increases the collection and recycling of leftover batteries, reduces government and overall costs of battery management and lessens environmental impact.

Though this report did look at the economics of recycling in the informal sector, further studies would help us understand the recycling sustainability in a formalised space. Also, success depends on consumers handing in their waste batteries for recycling. So consumer awareness is crucial.

Regulation for battery constituents, design and labelling are key to reducing impacts, as per the study. Further, in India, the unorganised sector has, until now, played a key role in the collection and recycling of spent dry cell batteries. The evolving framework could be inclusive of the informal chain of collectors and segregators.

The report can be accessed here

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