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Why You Drop Off Your Used Batteries at the Library

Heather Kennedy/Flickr
Recycled batteries aren't worth much, but the zinc oxide in some goes on to have a second life as sunscreen.

There are lots of things we power with batteries these days, from interactive children's books that use tiny batteries, to toothbrushes that run on bigger batteries, to our mobile devices with their rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

But when a battery's life ends, we're faced with the question of what to do with it. Right now, Austinites can drop off their used batteries at any of the city's library branches to be recycled. But what happens to those batteries after they're dropped off? 

Most people think of recycling as a business. But, most people familiar with the business will tell you the batteries dumped into buckets at Austin's Central Library are worth almost nothing. Then, why do we recycle batteries at all?

Carl Smith with Call2Recycle, the non-profit that picks up the used batteries delivered to Austin’s libraries, says battery manufacturers do it to keep them out of landfills.

“They came up with the idea that in order for them to effectively be in the market of batteries, they had to think through the entire life-cycle of a battery, including its end of life," Smith says.

Manufacturers, like Energizer, or Central Texas-based Dell, finance Call2Recycle for environmental reasons, similar to how some companies buy clean-air credits to offset their carbon footprint.

Smith says Call2Recycle picks up the batteries for free, then separates the materials through a chemical process. And, most of those materials are worthless — but there are some that get a second life.

“The zinc oxide that you put on your nose to protect it from getting burned in the summertime has a zinc component, and that zinc is often harvested from alkaline batteries that are processed,” Smith says.

Batteries can also help local libraries. Through Sept. 18, the branch that collects the most batteries will get either a bench or a bike rack.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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