How is nonperforming batteries a threat to environment and humans?

Nonperforming batteries are a growing concern for environmental wellbeing which has been neglected for quite a time by various organizations and governments. In India itself, a whopping 2.7 billion pieces of dry cells are used each year as reported by statistics.

Generally in developing countries, there is no legislation related to this or even if there is one, it is not strictly adhered to. Hence, the vast majority of these waste batteries end up getting dumped into the general landfill.

Major toxic components of batteries

1. Lithium Carbonate

When it is used without caution may face diseases related to the stomach, heart as well as neuromuscular system. It can even prove to be fatal to human life.

2. Potassium

Potassium when leaks through the battery may also cause severe burns to the skin and harm the eyes as well.

3. Mercury

It has a great potential to cause severe diseases to human beings. It affects almost all the various important systems and parts of the human body.

It inhibits the growth of fetuses and causes several impairments to the nervous system. Minamata disease which originated in Japan was caused due to mercury.

4. Lead

It is very toxic in nature and creates a lot of health issues. The threat of health implications is great in children and pregnant women since they are in a growing phase.

In children, an excess concentration of lead can inhibit growth, damage the kidney as well as brain, and can also cause hearing impairment.

Lead can cause harm to the reproductive system, memory loss, and induce poor concentration in adults. Lead is also known to cause high blood pressure, nerve disorders, and muscle and joint pain in addition to other diseases.

5. Sulfuric acid

The sulfuric acid possessed by the lead-acid battery is very corrosive in nature and may cause severe chemical burns if comes in contact with the skin and even permanently damage the eyes. Whenever dealing with sulfuric acid proper care and precautions must be adhered to.

6. Cadmium

It has far more grave consequences than lead when it enters the body of a human being. When ingested it can cause severe damage to the kidney. Cadmium is found in a good amount inside nickel-cadmium batteries. 

7. Nickel-metal-hydride

It is considered non-toxic to human beings. The electrolyte present, when exposed to high temperature, causes the formation of gas which may be a threat. The nickel is dangerous for the growth of plants when present in high concentration causing chlorosis and necrosis.

Effect of dumping of batteries in landfill

The batteries after being dumped into the landfill then leach chemicals present inside them which get released to the water streams, air, and soil and pollute them all.

The harmful chemicals damage the balance of the ecosystem of the micro-organisms by killing some of them while creating favorable conditions for others.

The harmful chemicals which retain over the surface of the soil are absorbed by the plants growing and traces of harmful chemicals can be found in the crops which ultimately disposes of in our body, thus making us prone to a variety of diseases. The chemicals can also affect the taste and color of the crops.

The same happens when the harmful elements leaching from the e-waste enter the water stream. The heavy metals present in the batteries get bio-accumulated in aquatic organisms such as fishes and may spoil them for consumption.

It disturbs the ecological balance of the aquatic systems. It can cause the death of several aquatic plants and animals including fishes.

There is a chain of events that takes place when one of the parameters is disturbed and hence these types of interference may be disastrous. The water polluted with these harmful elements when utilized for drinking purposes can accumulate in the body of the consumers.

The harmful chemicals enter the groundwater table and thus pollutes them too. The harmful chemicals also mix up with the air and then enters the body of the living being through the process of respiration.

Methods for disposal of batteries

1. Reduce

As the saying goes “Prevention is better than cure”, hence a good amount of effort should be invested in designing and manufacturing devices that do not utilize batteries as a source of energy.

Switching to a better and cleaner source of energy with minimum impact on the environmental aspect must be focused rather than just running around development without any sustainable management.

2. Reuse

Reusing the available batteries makes sense rather than going for the newly manufactured ones since it not only has economic benefit attached to it but also serves as a boon for the already overburdened environment.

Rechargeable batteries should be encouraged by reducing the cost which would eventually increase its dominance in the battery market.

Rechargeable batteries reduce the burden on the environment due to their multiple cycles of recharging and discharging before being put out as wastage.

3. Recycle

Once the scope for reusability has been exhausted, the spent batteries can be used for recycling purposes. The recycling methods segregate the components of batteries to be used as raw materials for the manufacturing of various other products.

This helps in cutting down the cost of the product and also diminishes the overall requirement of energy for the manufacturing of the product.

Though the recycling process is quite promising, because of the complexity of the batteries, there is no single standard process for the treatment of all batteries.

The batteries are complex because they have all different constituents for different types of batteries and with technological advancement, the constituents may also vary simultaneously.

The waste generated after the recycling process contains many hazardous substances such as toxic heavy metals in it which should be fairly treated before dumping. This sometimes becomes hectic to do and thus increases the overall cost of recycling and turns it into an uneconomic activity.

Hence governments should support such facilities by subsidizing them so that they remain economical along with being environmentally friendly.

The steps related to recycling are as follows:

1. Segregation of components

In this part, by use of physical means various components of the batteries, are separated and then the remaining portion of the batteries are accumulated and these are known as concentrates.

This step is usually the initial step in the process of recycling. These concentrates are then treated further by other recycling methods.

2. Pyrometallurgy

The concentrates from the initial step of recycling are treated through this method utilizing extreme temperatures.

The extreme temperatures cause changes in the physical and chemical properties of the concentrates which are then utilized to help recover precious materials. There is no hazardous waste generated during this process of pyrometallurgy.

3. Hydrometallurgy

The concentrates in this process are leached using either acid or base. The leached metals lie in the solution and then extracted using various techniques such as pH alteration, precipitation, or electrolysis. The waste generated in the Hydrometallurgical process also needs to be treated before disposal.

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