Today, I embarked upon a magical journey, a journey of discovery, a journey of oneness with the environment. In a word, a journey of recycling.
For several years, I’ve been accumulating junk of various sorts on a shelf under my workbench with the intention of eventually figuring out how to dispose of it in an environmentally sound way. Today, I decided to throw it all into boxes and try to get rid of it.
Here’s what I started my journey with. First, some electronics:
From the top left: a UPS (lead-acid battery removed) we had replaced with a higher capacity one, a Coby brand portable radio my son managed to destroy shortly after he was given it (a reflection not of my son’s ability to destroy things but rather of the poor quality of the radio), a portable spotlight with a depleted lead-acid battery sealed into its base, a non-working digital camera that’s too old to be worth fixing, two non-working walkie-talkies (I left them sitting for two long with batteries in them, and the batteries leaked and destroyed the electronics; d’oh!), two malfunctioning hard drives, a non-working MOBI brand “Tykelight” (again, poor quality led to a premature death), a burned-out USB cable (Yes, Virginia, you can actually destroy a USB cable by using it to charge a device that draws more power than it’s rated for), a non-working Apple keyboard, and three wall warts, one for the Tykelight and two for who knows what.
Next, the batteries. There were lithium:
rechargeable (NiMH, NiCd):
lead acid (these, plus the one in the base of the spotlight shown above):
and, finally, “buttons” / watch batteries:
Note that the negative terminals of all the batteries with exposed terminals except the buttons were taped over to prevent short-circuits and fires while transporting them to be recycled.
Finally, after the electronics and batteries came the hazardous waste: a box of CFL bulbs (not one of which lasted for as long as the manufacturer claimed it would; have I mentioned how much I hate CFL bulbs?), including several broken ones safely ensconced in plastic (broken CFL bulbs leak toxic mercury!):
and two broken mercury thermometers:
My plan was to first visit Best Buy, which was rumored to recycle many of these items for free, then to visit the Home Depot across the street with any remaining items. My suspicion was that when all was said and done, I was going to end up stuck with the non-rechargeable batteries and mercury thermometers. The batteries, because they’re not hazardous waste and therefore most cities and towns (including Boston, MA, where I live) tell residents to simply throw them in the trash, even though they can be recycled to recover and reuse some of the materials in them; and the thermometers because they’re classic hazardous waste and it seemed unlikely that anyone would take them.
And so, I loaded everything into boxes in the trunk of my car:
With my boxes loaded into a cart from the parking lot, I entered the Best Buy and found this in the entryway:
In case you can’t make them out, the five types of recycling accepted here are gift cards, CDs, DVDs & cases; plastic bags; rechargeable batteries; wires, cords & cables; and ink & toner cartridges (yeah, my house produces those too, but I recycle those at Staples for the $2 credit). I put the rechargeable batteries and USB cable in the appropriate holes and then went into the store to see what else I could get rid of.
Upon seeing me, before I could even say anything, the guy at the customer service desk said, “Are you here to recycle stuff?” and when I said yes, he said, “Oh, you can just leave the cart with the stuff in it over there near register 1 and you’re all set.”
“Um, are you sure? I think I need to make sure you take all this stuff before I just leave it.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary, we take anything,” jumped in another blue-clad Best Buy employee.
“Really? Do you take lead-acid batteries?”
“How about compact fluorescent bulbs?”
“Nope, we don’t take those either.”
“See, that’s why I really think it’s a good idea to go through the stuff I’ve got and figure out what you can and can’t recycle.”
Having convinced them of the necessity, they went over everything in my boxes with me, and then they took everything off my hands except the non-rechargeable and lead-acid batteries, the CFL bulbs, and the broken thermometers. Good progress!
I loaded the remaining items back in the card and drove across the street to Home Depot, where I loaded them into another cart and entered the store. Here’s what I found next to the service desk (sorry about the blurry image; they were looking at me a bit funny so I didn’t have time to focus):
The bin on the left is for recycling CFL bulbs. It says on the bin that for safety, you’re supposed to put each bulb in one of the provided plastic bags before depositing it into the bin, but of course there were no plastic bags (you can see the two empty prongs on top of the bin which are supposed to be holding a roll of plastic bags), and when I asked the customer service “team member”, she said just to put them in the bin without bags. Broken CFL bulbs spewing mercury into the air! Excellent!
The bin on the right is for recycling batteries. It doesn’t say anywhere on the bin what kinds of batteries are accepted for recycling. It does, however, have the acronym “RBRC”, which unfortunately isn’t explained. I asked, and two different team members insisted that I could leave any kinds of batteries I wanted, so I deposited all of my batteries into the bin and and set off for home with only two broken thermometers remaining out of my original cargo.
I was a bit suspicious about being told that I could leave any kind of batteries I wanted, so I did a little research when I got home. It turns out that RBRC stands for “Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation,” and they don’t recycle non-rechargeable batteries. In other words, the batteries which I spent years carefully collecting in my basement so that they could be recycled rather than just taking up space in a landfill, are going to just take up space in a landfill, because RBRC is just going to throw them away (although I wonder whether they will properly dispose of the lithium batteries, which can’t just be thrown away, since they have toxic chemicals in them). Home Depot does it again! I’ve sent an inquiry to Home Depot about this through their web site; I’ll update this posting with any response they send. [UPDATE: Home Depot customer service confirmed that the batteries I dropped off would not be recycled, at least not by Home Depot. They were silent on the question of what would actually happen to them; my guess is that they'll be tossed in the trash.]
I suspect I’ll have to dispose of the broken thermometers at one of the City of Boston’s Household Hazardous Waste Drop-Off Days, except that they’re all on Saturdays when I can’t drop off waste for religious reasons. I’ve sent the city an inquiry about what to do about that; I’ll update this posting with their response.
Most cities’ and towns’ hazardous waste programs will accept non-alkaline batteries (whether they actually recycle them, or just dispose of them “safely”, I don’t know), so if I hadn’t been given wrong information by Home Depot, I could have gotten rid of the lithium and zinc batteries and the buttons through the city, though that still leaves open the question of how to dispose of alkalines in an environmentally conscious way.
On that question, it appears that there are several possibilities:
- Check out the list of corporate Big Green Box partners, and if you have local branches of any of them near you, call them up and ask if they recycle alkaline batteries.
- Buy a battery recycling “kit” from some place like batteryrecycling.com.
- Look up a nearby recycling center in Earth911’s database, though may need to pay them to get them to take your batteries.
- Throw up your hands in frustration, throw the batteries out with your regular trash, and start recycling them when it becomes easier.
And, of course, you can minimize the amount of batteries you throw away by using rechargeable batteries whenever possible.
By the way, if you don’t have a Best Buy near you, there are lots of other chains that participate in RBRC rechargeable battery recycling. You can search for a nearby drop-off location here.