I am battery recycling’s nemesis

I am battery recycling’s nemesis

Wednesday’s Globe and Mail was up in arms over a proposal by Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, chair of the public works committee, to create a deposit-return system for batteries in order to keep them out of landfills. In his column, John Barber explains the root of the proposal’s inanity: Queen’s Park will soon be establishing its own province-wide system to divert such materials. The provincial system will be voluntary and deposit-free and involve many drop-off locations. Alas, this is why it won’t work, and I present myself as Exhibit A to prove my point: I am in the habit of tossing used batteries into the trash, and I can’t be bothered to behave differently.

You can shame me for my environmental sin all you want, but given that more than 5,000 tonnes of non-rechargeable batteries are sold in Ontario every year yet only 204 tonnes are collected, it appears that most Ontarians behave the same way, and anyone who is serious about solving this problem has to go through me and my ilk. Why am I so intransigent? Because my life is busy and I have a young family and I’m self-absorbed and I really can’t be bothered worrying about how dead batteries toxify landfills, because really, isn’t that the point of landfills? Last time I checked, most landfills are engineered with multiple layers of underground membranes for the precise purpose of keeping such leachate problems under control. I am a dutiful household waste sorter, but battery disposal involves an extra effort that I can’t be bothered to integrate into my routine.

What’s most frustrating about both the drop-off and deposit-return options is the extent to which neither is designed for the end-user. Depots, special-event battery-return days, pricing mechanisms—they’re all just a bunch of additional things (things a witty friend once labelled “annoya”) for me to keep track of when my little used-battery pail starts overflowing. And the truth is that De Baeremaeker’s option would be the most annoying, but it would also be the most effective, since it promises me a payback in exchange for the disruption to my routine. The provincial plan essentially admits to its own ineffectiveness: its target for collection, after the first five years of the program, is a mere 25 per cent of all batteries sold, which is pitiful.

Either way, neither city hall nor Queen’s Park is really trying to make it truly easy—I mean zero-time-commitment, zero-brainpower, zero-hassle easy—which is the best way to get people to recycle. The easiest solution would be to let me toss them into my blue bin, but alas, the hydraulic presses in the garbage trucks might crush them en route to the sorting station, unleashing a toxic slurry down the conveyor belts. Next best option: I’ll seal them in a Ziploc bag and put them atop the lid of my soon-to-be-issued, spanking-new recycling bin, and the city can outfit its trash fleet with separate containers that would allow them to collect the batteries without crushing them. That way I could put them out for collection any time I want. Other municipalities, incidentally, do exactly this.

De Baeremaeker says the biggest reason for not collecting batteries at curbside is the price. Even with money granted under the province’s new plan, he says, Toronto taxpayers would still be on the hook for part of the cost. “Under a deposit-return system, it would cost taxpayers virtually nothing,” he says. “We in the public sector are forever dancing around how to collect someone else’s toxic material when we could just hand it back to them.” De Baeremaeker makes the act of returning your spent batteries sound like an act of protest—take that, corporate battery conglomerate!—but I’m sure that thrill would wear off fast.

If cost is the issue, then the city should collect them at curbside, gather them up, and hand them back to the industry along with an invoice for collection services. The existing collection system ought to be able to adapt, especially for something that is such a staple of the waste stream. The bottom line is that my current habits involve taking my used batteries no further than my curb, and the most successful recycling solution will be one that keeps it that way.