Issue - May 2011
An Everyday Poison
Jessica Eastwell takes a look at a type of hazardous waste that lurks in many rubbish bins..
They are an item most of us use every day without really thinking about them. If we do consider them, they are only disposable sources of power for our cameras, our mp3 players, and other gadgets. But have any of us ever really thought about what happens to our batteries once we throw them away, or the chemicals inside them?
The Sociedad de GestiĂłn Ambiental Boliviana (Society for Environmental Management in Bolivia, or SGAB) discovered just how many problems used batteries can cause when they published a study on the impact of different kinds of rubbish in Cochabamba. This led to a citywide initiative to collect used batteries to prevent them ending up in landfill, where they pollute earth and water, as well as posing health risks to humans.
While there are various kinds of batteries, all of them have one thing in common: they contain heavy metals, corrosive acids and other toxic materials. Even the plastic casing they come in, while not actively poisonous, does not decompose naturally, and causes its own kind of pollution. However, since last June, the SGAB has been managing collection points for all kinds of used batteries across the city. â€śWeâ€™re currently sorting about four tons of batteries,â€ť explains Alejandra Kolbe, a representative of the project.
Unfortunately, there are no recycling plants for batteries in Bolivia, due to the expensive technology and raw materials required. The costs of shipping batteries abroad for recycling are also too high. So the SGAB collects the batteries, and stores them in a secure place, with a membrane that prevents harmful chemicals leaking out, in order to ensure that the batteries do not damage the environment or human health while they wait for the technology to build a recycling plant to arrive. Ms. Kolbe admits that this system is far from perfect, but stresses that â€śthe most important thing is to protect people and the environment.â€ť She is also keen to emphasize that this is an ongoing research project, which is collecting valuable data at every stage, and that this information is to be used to improve their current storage system, so that â€śbatteries can stay in the storage unit, not a rubbish dump, until we have the technology to recycle themâ€ť.
Batteries that the SGAB do not collect normally â€śend up in the Kjara Kjara rubbish dump, where they donâ€™t have the technological resources to ensure that they donâ€™t pollute the earth, water, or the health of people who live nearbyâ€ť. The main problem is that while batteries are in fact hazardous waste, â€śpeople throw them away with their normal household rubbishâ€ť. However, the situation is not completely hopeless, since car batteries are normally recycled in Cochabamba, either by garages or scavengers.
While there are various kinds of batteries, all of them have one thing in common: they contain heavy metals, corrosive acids and other toxic materials
A more sustainable solution would be the use of rechargeable batteries, but Ms. Kolbe thinks that this is unlikely in Bolivia â€śbecause of our social, cultural and economic situation.... Many people donâ€™t have the money or the opportunity to buy a battery chargerâ€ť. Since this is clearly not a viable option for the present, she suggests that the scheme could be extended with the backing of the municipal government. This would mean that the used batteries of Cochabamba and the surrounding countryside can be safely stored on a larger scale, until the necessary technology becomes available.
All SGAB projects include technical as well as educational elements. For this project, it involves a network of information points across Cochabamba, as well as a combination of small group workshops and talks. â€śThis way, all our projects are supported by environmental education, and making people more aware of the issuesâ€ť, explains Ms. Kolbe. So far, the project seems to have been a great success, and the SGAB often struggles to keep up with demand for battery collection: â€śWe tried having temporary collection points, to see if people would take part or not. Itâ€™s clear that people know about them, and we often get phone calls asking for more containers at the collection points,â€ť she says proudly.
For hundreds of years, the native South American population has been wearing ponchos to keep warm in the chilly highlands. Although they are a traditional garment, ponchos are still frequently worn. But the poncho is more than just a garment, and the women in La Cancha go as far as to call their ponchos art, and very typical of Bolivia.