Battery program keeps going, growing

URBANA - About a year ago, the Illinois Student Environmental Network began its battery recycling program on a rainy Saturday morning at the Urbana Farmers' Market.

"It was cold and rainy, but they turned out in droves to give us batteries," recalled Laura Huth, executive director of the environmental network.

"People came with boxes of batteries that they had saved for years and now, they told us, they could finally get rid of them. The rain did not keep them away. They were really excited to get rid of the batteries they had been saving for years."

It turned out to be a good beginning for what has become a successful program. Just one year later, the program has drop-off buckets at eight different Champaign-Urbana locations, and more than 2,800 pounds of batteries have been recycled. That's twice the amount organizers thought they'd be able to collect.

Huth said she had recognized the need for a battery recycling program for a long time. She said she frequently received telephone calls from local residents asking where they could recycle batteries.

"There was no option and nothing in the works," she said. "So we just did it. We were confident we would be able to get community support."

A University of Illinois at Chicago group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, was brought in to help plan the initial phase and help staff the drop-off booth at the farmers' market in Urbana.

Response has continued to grow.

"In February, we went to a second bucket (each week)," said Jack Wallace, general manager of Strawberry Fields Natural Foods Store, 306 W. Springfield Ave., U, one of the drop-off sites. "People really like the idea of it. We get people bringing in boxes of them. It's amazing."

A number of metals, acids and alkalines are contained in batteries, including lead, nickel and mercury, depending on the type of battery. When burned, the batteries release toxins in the air and when landfilled, the metals can leach into the water and, eventually, the food supply.

The environmental network contracts with Battery Solutions Inc., of Brighton, Mich., to recycle the batteries. Battery Solutions sends the batteries, depending on their type, to smelters in the United States and Canada that remove and recycle the heavy metals, plastics and paper, according to Susan McGeorge, a spokeswoman for Battery Solutions.

McGeorge said that under a 1995 federal law, batteries for household use do not have to be recycled. Batteries used by business must, by law, be recycled, she said.

The recycling program does not pay for itself, requiring the Illinois Student Environmental Network to solicit donations and grants. People who drop off batteries are asked to donate $1 per pound of batteries they drop off.

But those donations don't pay nearly the entire cost. Recycling costs with Battery Solutions were $2,341 through March 31 and shipping costs were nearly $1,000.

A critical early financial supporter was Busey Bank, which provided a $500 matching grant that individuals and local companies quickly matched. The Urbana Park District provided $400, and the city of Urbana came up with $1,000.

In April, the program received a $5,500 grant through the U.S. Cellular "Connecting Our Communities" program.

Huth said she believes the program can continue to grow.

"As more and more people learn about our program, everybody uses batteries and I fully expect we'll get more of them," Huth said. "We hope people will continue to support it and allow the program to expand."

The student environmental network also operates a mercury thermometer drop-off program at the farmers' market or the ISEN headquarters in Urbana. Ink-jet or toner cartridges can also be recycled through the environmental network.

Donations for battery recycling program can be made to the Illinois Student Environmental Network, 110 S. Race St., U.

You can reach Mike Monson at (217) 351-5370 or mmonson@news-gazette.com.

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