This may be a good case for the old adage "The devil we know is better than the devil we don't know."
Battery recycling has been a long debated issue that first began with lead car batteries and continues in the age of NiCad and Lithium batteries. Every producer of these new batteries says that the batteries are "recyclable" but what does that really mean? In the case of lead batteries, a global Greenpeace investigation of automobile lead-acid battery collection programs has revealed a massive flow of these extremely toxic wastes from heavily industrialized countries -- particularly Australia, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. -- to many Third World countries, particularly in Asia.
The main factors causing the lead battery waste trade are typical to all waste trade schemes: in industrial countries, the environmental and occupational health regulatory cost of operating lead battery recycling facilities is ever-increasing, and the prices offered for secondary lead are low. It is simply not profitable to operate secondary lead smelters in many industrial countries. Battery brokers are finding more profitable markets in places where workers are paid little, and environmental and workplace regulations are weak and/or unenforced.
The end result of this free trade in toxic waste: thousands of workers and children suffering from lead blood poisoning, rivers and air loaded with lead emissions, and big profits for the lead battery brokers and manufacturers.(1)
Rechargeable batteries are proving to be a challenge when it comes to recycling. While NiCad and Lithium batteries are recyclable in Theory, the actual process is proving to be a bit messy.
The UK's foremost agency for recycling batteries admits that, "For alkaline and zinc carbon batteries, which are the most common types, the UK hasn’t got a full process yet, but we are developing a hydrometallurgical system."(2) Currently the UK is actually recycling about 4% of the non-lead batteries that are discarded each year. (They do recycle about 90% of all discarded lead batteries.)(4)
In the United States the sheer number of these batteries is staggering. According to the U.S.E.P.A 220 MILLION Pounds of batteries and small electronic devices (cell phones & PDA's) enter the waste stream every year. Currently, about 50% are tossed into the trash bucket, and 50% are collected for recycling. Only about 2% of the collected materials are actually recycled, most of this waste is warehoused or sold to Asian countries, mainly China. (3)
It is very easy to make the choice to pick a product that is "recyclable" but it is very difficult to direct how the recycling will be done and where it will be done. The US currently has some pretty well tested laws concerning petroleum controls and nearly none concerning rechargeable battery recycling. Our laws say the companies must take them back but not what the companies need to do with them once they have them. Until those laws go into effect then we will have to live with the consequences.