Viewpoints

NYC finds unexpected success with Its rechargeable battery recycling program

By Todd Ellis

New York City is the largest municipality in the United States, with eight million people living in five boroughs. During the past decade, the Dept. of Sanitation has been raising the bar on recycling. Need to recycle clothes? Place it in a re-fashioNYC collection bin. Old electronics? The E-cycleNYC pickup service handles that. Compost? CFL light bulbs? NYC Recycles details how to re-use, recycle or revamp many household items. 

During the past eight years, the city has set the standard of what a municipality can achieve with a well-planned, well-organized recycling program. One of most successful examples of their success is the public rechargeable battery collection program, which has been tailored to meet the large-scale, complex needs of the city.

The results speak for themselves. Between 2006 and 2011, the program collected 345,595 lbs. (172.8 tons) of rechargeable batteries--equal to the weight of 87 Toyota Prius sedans. Between 2006 and 2011, collections increased 154 percent. The city collects four different types of rechargeable batteries, with the most popular being the Nickel Cadmium battery commonly found in cordless power tools and digital cameras and the Lithium Ion battery found in cell phones and laptops. The recycled by-products are used to create new products, such as batteries, stainless steel alloys and cement additives.

The program began in 2005, after the NYC City Council passed a law forbidding NYC residents to discard rechargeable batteries in the trash (or recycling containers).

The law was designed to keep potentially toxic waste such as batteries out of landfills. Rechargeable batteries may contain metals that can be harmful to the environment if disposed of improperly. The city also wanted to ensure the waste was properly disposed of in North America and not shipped offshore.

Faced with implementation of a battery recycling program by December 2006, the Department of Sanitation approached Call2Recycle, North America’s first and largest battery stewardship organization. The department wanted help in setting up a program in a city of New York’s size. With its extensive experience, Call2Recycle was able to help the department quickly develop and launch an aggressive awareness, collection and reporting program. The focus was on collecting rechargeable batteries that weighed less than 11 pounds (5 kg). These batteries are commonly found in two-way radios, cordless power tools, uninterruptible power supplies, remote control toys, cordless and cell phones and laptops. 

One of the most unusual elements of the Dept. of Sanitation’s campaign was its focus on city agencies. With approximately 300,000 employees at more than 75 city agencies and offices, the Dept. of Sanitation realized a primary target had to be those agencies that were big battery users. David Hirschler, director of the Waste Prevention Unit, NYC Department of Sanitation, said, “We believe that we can’t tell the public what to do if we can’t do it ourselves.”

The target agencies included fire and police department radio rooms, repair/maintenance locations with power tools and locations with back-up batteries for small electronics. These agencies eagerly signed on over time. A formal structure for increasing awareness and jumpstarting collections was developed. Promotional activities included web site updates, printed materials and free display/collection boxes and posters. Regular collection reports helped the department analyze collection trends.

A second target was the 20,000 retail stores that sold rechargeable batteries (or products containing those batteries). This ranged from mom-and-pop shops to big box stores. Call2Recycle provided collection kits and window signs to alert consumers they could recycle their rechargeable batteries at the locations at no charge.

Collected batteries are still regularly shipped to Call2Recycle’s U.S. sorters and processors, where they are sorted by chemistry and battery type, then melted down into by-products used to make new products. The sorters and processors follows the stringent guidelines of Responsible Recycling (R2) and the Basel Action Network (BAN) to ensure that the batteries are safely and efficiently transported and processed.

The biggest surprise was the program’s cost to the city: zero. Funding for the Call2Recycle program has been provided voluntarily by battery and product manufacturers interested in keeping their products out of the solid waste stream. Recognizing the city’s success, the State of New York recently passed an almost identical recycling law.

What’s unique about this program is the strong commitment by New York City to lead the nation in keeping rechargeable batteries and cellphones out of the solid waste stream. City staff, especially first responders and maintenance personnel, are proof of what a municipality can achieve when it is committed to recycling as a way of life.

According to Hirschler, “Many of the things you can do to ‘green’ a city you can do internally as well as externally. Recycling is now part of the city’s own standard operating procedure to make the city a greener place.”

Todd Ellis is the director of Stewardship Programs at Call2Recycle.

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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