Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover Batteries

Batteries © Liesl Clark

The Batteries We Recycle © Liesl Clark

The average American has at least 10 batteries in their possession at any given time and throws away 8 batteries per year. That statistic feels low to me. Members of my household blast through many more than 8 every few weeks. We try to use rechargeable batteries, because they’re reusable, but in some remote parts of the world where we work, we just need to bring disposables with us because the charging of batteries requires power.

Should we recycle batteries? Absolutely! The mercury and cadmium in our batteries can wreak havoc on the environment. According to the Environmental Health and Safety Organization, “In landfills, heavy metals have the potential to leach slowly into soil, groundwater or surface water. Dry cell batteries contribute about 88 percent of the total mercury and 50 percent of the cadmium in the municipal solid waste stream.”

By recycling batteries, we’re ensuring those heavy metals are captured again and kept from our watersheds. Whether they power our cell phones, laptop computers, or flashlights at night, batteries are an essential part of our everyday lives. Finding the nearest place to dispose of them is now easier,  through your municipal recycling transfer stations and facilities like Ikea for alkaline batteries and Staples for rechargeables and cell phone batteries.

Here’s an amazing resource from Environment, Health and Safety Online that will clue you in about all of the different types of batteries and how they impact the environment. They also highlight how to safely dispose of them. For example, those tiny little button batteries that go in your watch or in some toys should go to your household hazardous waste facility. Them things are toxic!

In Nepal, where we travel each year, batteries are what enable us to make our documentaries for National Geographic and NOVA. Without that stored power, we couldn’t run our film equipment. Batteries, whether rechargeable, alkaline, gel cell, or lithium, are essential to our mission. Each one is carried back down from the mountains and reused on future expeditions. The spent batteries are taken home with us for safe disposal since there’s no battery recycling in Nepal. In the Himalaya, we’ve seen batteries regularly discarded outside villages in the rivers and streams.

Over the years, we’ve worked to set up a battery recycling program in the kingdom of Mustang, one of the highest watersheds in the world. We’re trying to inspire villages to collect their batteries and stockpile them. Trekking agencies heading out of the kingdom with their clients can take a bag or 2 of these batteries downhill to be disposed of responsibly in Kathmandu or Pokhara, two of the largest urban centers in Nepal. Better yet, trekkers could take batteries home with them to recycle them in their home countries. The crisis of battery waste building-up in the pristine wilderness needs to be addressed by everyone who lives and travels through these fragile environments. We pick up batteries in the villages we stay in, and do a cleanup with villagers whenever we can.

Prayer Flags in the Kingdom of Mustang. Photo © Cory Richards

Prayer Flags in the Kingdom of Mustang. Photo © Cory Richards

The next time you see a battery lying on the ground, whether it’s in a parking lot, on a trail in the wilderness, or outside a rural village, think of our planet as one interconnected ecosystem. All water, and whatever might have leached into it, travels downhill. If we address, globally, the most toxic materials first and then work our way down the waste chain to the more inert ones, we have a place to start and a set of priorities to follow.

Batteries found in just a few minutes of searching amidst the town dumping site just outside the walls of the royal city of Lo Manthang. © Liesl Clark

Batteries found in just a few minutes of searching amidst the town dumping site just outside the walls of the royal city of Lo Manthang. © Liesl Clark

If  you’d like to help us, please donate, even a few dollars, to our battery rescue operation through the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.

Post-Holiday Zero Waste Living

Carefree Holiday Fun in Zero Waste Style

Carefree Holiday Snowball Fun in Zero Waste Style © Liesl Clark

Some reliable sources say Americans produce 25% more waste over the year-end holidays than we do the rest of the year. I’m not surprised, given the household waste-management we’re undergoing this time of year. Our consumption, through gift giving/receiving and party-throwing, is at an all-time high.

Trimming the Tree, Photo © Liesl Clark

What steps can we take to make this year a game-changer, reducing our impact at years’ end? Here are some easy zero-waste practices that should make you feel good:

  1. Recycle Your Live-Cut Christmas Tree: Most communities have tree recycling options available. Boy Scouts in some communities conduct drives to collect trees and chip them up into compost, for example. Other communities will allow you to put your tree in your yard waste bins.
  2. Reuse Your Live Christmas Tree: We throw ours in our brush pile and then cut it up for kindling once the wood has cured. But we’ve created a list of 15 reuses for your Christmas tree if you’re interested.
  3. Take a moment to turn off your power, enjoy a few hours of power disconnection with family for introspection and connection. We do this for an entire day and the appreciation for each other, and the magic of slowing down comes back  into our lives.

    Ace Hardware is Doing Good Things in Our Hometown © Liesl Clark

    Ace Hardware is Doing Good Things in Our Hometown © Liesl Clark

  4. Recycle your broken holiday/tree lights: When your lights stop working (and, sadly, these things are so poorly made their working life is not very long), don’t throw them away. Most communities have a local option for recycling string lights. Ace Hardware, for example, is our local drop point on our island. But if you can’t find a local venue, you can send your lights to Light Source, in Texas, where they sell used string lights for recycling and give the proceeds back to charity. Or, better yet, collect a few from friends and neighbors and send the tangled mess in a larger box so you know you’ve diverted more than your own from your waste stream. The Refining Company in Medford, OR also recycles holiday lights. Recycling string lights is a booming business in China and although the practices aren’t the most environmentally-sound, thousands of tons of string lights are kept out of our landfills. The Atlantic has a must-read article about the recycling of our string lights in China to mine out the copper wiring inside. After reading the article, I swore we’d never buy string lights again. We receive thousands of unwanted string lights at our local summer community auction, so our family retrieves a few of the unwanted strings from there each summer and use them until they stop working, which, sadly, isn’t very long. IMG_0769 copy
  5. Stockpile your styrofoam and recycle or reuse: Styrofoam is the single most prolific plastic material found on our beaches. In some communities, it has been banned. If you received styrofoam as part of a gift this holiday season, consider yourself the future steward of this highly toxic material. Finding your local recycling option for year-round styrofoam stewardship is the single best thing you could do for the environment this season. In the Seattle area, for example, a free drop-off location in Kent is the place. In the meantime, ask your local zero waste group if there’s a nearby store, like Bay Hay and Feed on Bainbridge Island, that conducts drives to collect the stuff so it doesn’t end up in our waters.
  6. Save your Christmas cards for repurposing: You can always recycle the cards you get from friends in your paper recycling bin. But a fun activity is to cut off the side with the writing and save the card with its attractive artwork for future homemade gift tags. Some people use them to create wreaths for next year, too. And I found a pretty bunting idea for displaying them on your hearth.
  7. Save all ribbon for reuse: Ribbons are made of plastic and survive in our oceans unscathed for years. We’re always surprised to find ribbon from birthday balloons wrapped up in seaweed (they are also known to entangle baby seals, sea otters and sea turtles) and once we break them free from the wrack line debris, the ribbon is as good as new. Save the ribbon you receive on gifts and give the gift of life to our marine creatures by not buying more of it. If you reuse what you have, and receive in the future, you’ll never need to buy more ribbon again. Giving and receiving is cyclical like that.
  8. Find a spot to store re-usable tape: This is a true insider’s tip. There’s plenty of tape and stickers that will peel right off a bag or shiny package and it, too, can be reused. The trick is to have a convenient spot in your home where you keep it. My friend Rebecca puts hers on the side of the fridge for the kids to access easily (kids go through gobs of tape.) We put our reclaimed tape on the inside of a closet door where office supplies are kept. Family members know that’s the community tape dispenser. We haven’t bought new tape in months.
  9. Save what wrapping paper you can for reuse: You don’t need an explanation for this. It’s yet another way to see how reuse can save you money. Most wrapping paper can’t be recycled because of the materials used to make it. Composting or burning it, too, isn’t recommended because of the toxins involved. Because we are committed to not buying new wrapping paper, what do we use? We make beautiful cloth gift bags and give them to friends and family for reuse. We recycle our children’s art as wrapping paper. We use pretty cloth as wrapping paper in the Japanese style of wrapping. We keep items in their shipping boxes and decorate the boxes with ribbon we’ve found on our beaches or plastic marine debris we’ve recovered as a reminder of our mission in the first place. These packages below are how our children creatively wrap their gifts in found items from our home or the beach:

10) Pass on your unwanted faux tree through The Buy Nothing Project or give to Goodwill: Thousands of plastic trees end up in the landfill after the holidays. These aren’t meant to be single-use items. If you need to get rid of yours, pass it on to Goodwill, sell it on Craigs List, or Buy Nothing it.

11) Don’t throw away your unwanted or broken items or toys: One of the single-most satisfying activities you can do with your family is create a workspace where you can repair the items you received over the holiday that were made to break within the first 6 months’ (or sometimes 6 hours) of use.

Send us your stories of what broke, and how you fixed it! We’re looking for inspiration from you, stories about how you defied the odds and came up with a smart solution to repair or repurpose an item so it could be diverted from a landfill and have a new life.

12) Thank your tree: And finally, a special thank you movie in tribute to the pesticide-free, sustainably grown US Forest Service tree we weeded from the dense thicket on the tree-laden slopes of the Olympic National Forest:

15 Reuses For Your Live Christmas Tree

Each year's Christmas tree is reused on our property. © Liesl Clark

Each year’s Christmas tree is reused on our property. © Liesl Clark

Before you send your live Christmas tree out on the curb for yard waste pickup or to the Boy Scouts for recycling, there may be another use that’s perfect for you and your tree.

  1. Kindling: Throw your live tree in your brush pile, let it cure, and then cut it up for kindling for next fall.
  2. Save Your Perennials from Freezing: Cover your perennial beds with your cut up pine boughs to either insulate them from future sub-zero weather, or for preserving the piled up snow that’s already on them. Repeated freeze-thaw cycles can kill your best perennials.
  3. Trivets and Coasters: Cut 1” disks from the trunk to make trivets or coasters. It’s a fun project for the kids
  4. Bird Feeder: Prop up your tree outside in the back yard and trim it with strings of popcorn and birdseed ornaments so your wild birds can have a winter feast.
  5. Do Something Really Cool With Your Tree: Fabien Cappello fashioned stools from abandoned Christmas trees on the streets of London.
  6. Plant Stakes: If you don’t have access to sticks in the woods near you, strip the branches of their needles and use them to stake your indoor plants that need some extra support.
  7. Pea Sticks: You can use the stripped branches as pea sticks later in the spring. Criss-cross them to make a trellis for your peas to grow up.
  8. Marshmallow Sticks: Those same pea sticks can then be used as marshmallow-roasting sticks in the summer.
  9. Garden Edging: Cut the trunk into disks to use as a garden border if you line them up on their sides and dig them 2” into the soil. These look really pretty on the garden’s edge.
  10. Fire Starter: We save some of our needles to use in our homemade fire starters.
  11. Potpourri: Use the needles for a homemade balsam potpourri.
  12. Garden Path: Use the disks cut from your tree trunk as flat stepping “stones” in your garden path. If you have a chipper, the wood chips from your tree can make nice garden path material, too.
  13. Erosion Barrier: We have used past trees along a slope on our property to help prevent a slope from slipping. This is our ongoing brush pile that is stabilizing the slope and holding up our lawn above it nicely.
  14. Habitat: If your tree ends up in your brush pile, or out in a spot on your property, it provides cover for birds and little rodents, making a safe habitat for plenty of critters. Some experts claim that throwing a tree into your pond can provide safe cover for your fish.
  15. Save the Blue Herons: In Illinois a special Christmas tree recycling program reuses the trees as nesting materials in a blue heron rookery.
    Our Elves © Liesl Clark

    Our Elves © Liesl Clark

    What do you do with your tree? Are there any other reuses that we didn’t include?

Easiest Prettiest Ornament You’ll Ever Make

As we’re just two days to Christmas, I’ll keep this brief. But suffice it to say, this is a great children’s activity in the days before Christmas.

Items Needed:

1 Plastic Lid

Non-stick cooking oil or spray


Leftover beads, sequins, glitter, sparkly stuff

We even used some beach glass and small shells from the beach

Piece of ribbon or yarn

All you need is to pull a plastic dairy tub lid out of the recycle bin, like a large yogurt container lid. The 4″ wide version works well but you can use a small one, too, for a smaller ornament. Spray or lightly oil with non-stick cooking oil. Then pour glue into the lid. Start placing your items in the glue spaced nicely around and don’t be shy just throw it all in there. Be sure to also stick a loop of yarn or ribbon at the top to act as your hanging ribbon. Wait for a couple of days for the glue to dry. If you place your lids in the sun or in a warm place the drying time goes faster. When it’s dry, just flex the lid around a bit and the ornament will come off easily! You end up with a pretty ornament that glows and sparkles with Christmas lights behind it. Easy!

Easy Peasy Pretty Ornament From a Plastic Lid Mold

Easy Peasy Pretty Ornament From a Plastic Lid Mold

How to Recycle Aerosol Cans

I was driving down the road and lo and behold, a gaggle of aerosol cans could be seen by the roadside. There were 5 of them, all cans of whipped cream, their tops off, strewn to indicate someone wanted to get them quickly out of their possession. It was less than a week since Halloween so I deduced they were a discard from a Halloween reveler who didn’t want to be caught with evidence of whipped-up foul play.

Roadside aerosols, Photo © Liesl Clark

I pulled over and threw the sticky mess into the back of my car. What was I to do now with these cans? Do they go in recycling, in the garbage, or is there another alternative for aerosol cans?

Aerosol Cans Are Made of Metal and Can Be Thrown in Scrap Metal, Photo © Liesl Clark

Most people don’t realize that in many areas you can recycle aerosol cans. They typically don’t go in your regular recycling but can go in your local scrap metal bin. Metal has value. Check with your regional government recycling website to see where they recommend you put aerosol cans. But there’s one hitch to this process: You need to make sure all the aerosols, i.e. the gas is fully expended. So, use up what’s inside that spray can of yours and then make extra sure you’ve let all the compressed gas go. Here’s a You Tube video to show you how to fully expend your aerosols, if you’re a purist. This way the pent up gas won’t be a hazard to workers at waste facilities. Word has it that many an aerosol can, when included with garbage and pressed down in a crusher, have exploded in the face of workers around garbage trucks and transfer stations. To ensure their safety, please expend all of the contents of your aerosol cans.

Expend All Gas in Aerosol Cans, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you have a partially used can of something, like spray paint or even shaving cream, you’ll need to take it to your local household hazardous waste facility. They will expend the aerosols for you to make sure this potentially dangerous can of goods doesn’t wreak havoc. You might consider Freecycling your can of stuff if it’s only partially used. Chances are one of your neighbors will enjoy taking your aerosol stuffs off your hands and use up the contents of the can for you. In my case, I had the help of my dog and my gourmand chickens.

Find Someone Who Could Use Up The Contents of Your Aerosol Can, Photo © Liesl Clark

Gourmand Chickens Love Whipped Cream, Photo © Liesl Clark

If you want to be really cool you could reuse your can, like the artists at Can Love do, and create amazing works of art from all the parts of your beautiful aerosol can. No matter how you look at it, that aerosol can has no reason to end up in a landfill or incinerator. The stuff it’s made of is a resource to someone.

Oh, and you might try to look into alternatives to aerosols and those plastic-and-metal canisters in the first place, like this super delicious post about whipped cream less plastic.

Do you have any aerosol can adventures to share with us? Please do.