August 2011

The Batteries of Cochabamba

The results of the SGAB study on battery use in Cochabamba are in. So what can we do to minimise the impact of this dangerous waste?

By Jessica Eastwell
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Hexham - England


Some readers may remember a previous article on the SGAB battery collection scheme in the May edition of the Cochabanner. Apart from keeping a large amount of hazardous waste out of landfills, the project has also collected important information about battery use in Cochabamba.

AA alkaline batteries are the most common type in Cochabamba. One AA battery can contaminate 3,000 litres of water.

Since April 2010, the SGAB-Ciudades Focales project has collected nearly 4 tonnes of batteries in Cochabamba, in order to study what batteries are most frequently used in Cochabamba, and to find the best way to dispose of them.

They have discovered that the most common type of battery used in Cochabamba is AA batteries (59.4% of the total, 45.2% of the total weight of batteries collected), and that the vast majority of these (81.73% of all the batteries collected) are zinc manganese batteries, also known as alkaline batteries. These contain dangerous amounts of heavy metals such as zinc, manganese and mercury, which can damage the environment and human health. The full findings about which types of batteries are most used can be seen in the table below.

Type of Battery

Percentage of
Total by Weight
Percentage of
Total by Number
AA 45.1 59.4
AAA 5.82 14.91
C 6.56 3.44
D 26.28 6.86
Button 0.61 11.05
12V 0.2 0.18
9V 3.4 1.98
6V 0.12 0.07
3V 0.1 0.14
1.5V 0 0.01
3.5V 0 0.01
3.6V 0 0
1.2V 0 0.01
5V 0.01 0
Mobile Phone 1.59 0.99
Wireless Phone 1.16 0.89
Car Batteries 8.05 0.01
Rubbish   NA

Since AA alkaline batteries are the most common type in Cochabamba, and the ones we are most likely to encounter on an everyday basis - we use them to power our torches, radios and CD players. What can we do to decrease their impact?

Photo: SGAV
Workers recycling batteries

Firstly, we can try to use rechargeable batteries. Unfortunately, rechargeable AA batteries (normally cadmium-nickel or nickel metal hydride) also contain harmful chemicals. Despite this, they are a more environmentally friendly option, as they can be recharged up to a thousand times, whereas standard AA batteries are only used once. While they may seem more expensive than alkaline batteries at first, they can be recharged so many times that they work out cheaper in the long run. Zinc carbon AA batteries are also available, and the SGAB has described their toxic characteristics as “very low”, as opposed to alkaline batteries, which are classed as “toxic”. The main disadvantage of zinc carbon batteries is that they do not last as long as alkaline batteries.

The amount of dangerous chemicals ending up in landfill is still a cause for concern.

Recent technological advances have also led to devices that can recharge AA alkaline batteries, although not as often as a purpose-made rechargeable battery (about ten times as opposed to a thousand). Sadly, these technologies are currently only available in the USA, Europe and Australia, but if they ever become available in Bolivia, they could reduce the amount of AA batteries ending up in landfill by 90%. However, as these chargers normally cost $US30-100, they would probably be unaffordable for many Bolivians, despite the amount of money it could save in the long term.

However, there are some regulations that are designed to reduce the damaging effects of batteries. The European Union banned the sale of batteries with a mercury content greater than 0.05% in 1991, and since 1996, the USA have only permitted button batteries with a mercury content of less than 0.005% per cell. Despite this, the amount of dangerous chemicals ending up in landfill is still a cause for concern. As the SGAB points out, one AA battery can contaminate 3,000 litres of water.

So what can Cochabambinos do with their used batteries? While the pilot study is over, the collection points around the city will stay open, under the management of the municipal government. While there are no recycling schemes for batteries currently in place, at least batteries can be stored safely until they can be recycled.

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