The environmental benefits of battery recycling depend on the reprocessing technologies and collection systems used. This is one of the conclusions of two research studies published in the US in 2010 and the UK in 2006. Both studies used the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method to analyse the environmental impact of portable batteries throughout their life cycle, including raw materials extraction and refining, battery manufacturing, end of life disposal or recovery, and transport.
The most recent study, by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), analysed the environmental impact of different end of life options for alkaline batteries. The study concluded that the environmental impacts of batteries over their life cycle are primarily from the production of raw materials, with production of manganese dioxide, zinc and steel having the highest impacts. The benefits of recycling can be optimised by recovering more than zinc for its metal value (i.e. replacing virgin material). The environmental impacts of the collection stage depend on whether consumers need to make a dedicated transport journey. The scenario with the lowest impact was the addition of batteries to an existing kerbside collection system. Municipal and retail drop-off systems were also modelled.
The earlier study, by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) in the UK, considered end of life options for all portable batteries. These included alkaline, zinc carbon, lithium, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lead acid and other battery chemistries. Unlike the MIT research, it consided the financial cost of different scenarios as well as their environmental impact. The study concluded that increasing recycling is beneficial to the environment due to the recovery of metals and avoidance of virgin metal production. However, this is achieved at a significant cost compared to disposal in landfill or incineration.
Download the studies here:
ERM (2006), Battery waste management life cycle assessment