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Green Guru
Advice for the eco-minded.


How can I recycle batteries?
—Barbara Kenopsky, Milford, CT

Somehow, it happens: You end up with a drawer full of spent batteries and no idea what to do with them. You have a nagging feeling they shouldn’t be thrown in the trash, and you’re wise to be cautious. “Batteries contain heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, which can contaminate the environment when improperly disposed of,” says Roxanne Smith, a press officer for the Environmental Protection Agency. “When incinerated, certain metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process.”

Among the most worrisome of those metals is mercury, which is toxic on its own but even more so when it binds to organic molecules in the environment and becomes methylmercury. Increasing in concentration as it works its way up the food chain, methylmercury accumulates in fish, birds, and humans. The good news is the mercury found in some disposable batteries has fallen by 97 percent since 1984. The bad news is the mercury reductions can allow municipalities to exempt some single-use batteries from hazardous waste regulations. (Find out if yours accepts them by calling your town’s sanitation department.)

Using rechargeable batteries reduces the volume of single-use ones headed for landfills, but keep in mind that they also contain heavy metals. Rechargeables in gadgets like cell phones, computers, and power tools are now accepted at many stores. (Find a drop-off site near you at the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation or Earth 911.) Most jewelry stores collect button batteries (like those found in watches), and auto repair shops are required to take used lead-based car batteries.
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I’ve recently been told weed killer is something to avoid using in the yard. But does a little really hurt?
—David Simons, Portland, OR

A spritz here, a spritz there—no big deal, right? The problem is, you’re not the only one who’s spraying to keep the weeds down, and it’s the cumulative effect of many people using just “a little” that amounts to a bigger problem. Every time you use a chemical in your yard or garden, it eventually washes away and joins the myriad other environmental toxins already present in our air, water, and soil. On top of the possible individual health impacts of each of those compounds, very few chemicals have been tested for how they interact with one another, meaning we’re running a big science experiment on the planet and ourselves. Avoiding chemical products is a sensible precaution.

One of the major concerns regarding the use of pesticides is their impact on water-bound amphibians, which have experienced steep declines in recent years. There are a number of natural ways you can keep weeds out of your garden while protecting waterways, including old-fashioned pulling, which works particularly well for annuals and tap-rooted plants. Ease plants slowly and carefully out of the ground to minimize disturbing the surrounding soil, which can make it easier for weed seeds to germinate. Another common method of removing weeds over large areas is to block sunlight with black or clear plastic secured to the ground and left for four to six weeks. As temperatures below the plastic heat up, subsurface roots and seeds should die.

Corn gluten meal—a by-product of corn milling—is a natural alternative to synthetic herbicides that can prevent the seeds of such weeds as crabgrass, chickweed, and dandelions from sprouting.

Above all else, prevention is a gardener’s best strategy for battling nuisance plants. “It’s always easiest to control weeds when they’re young,” says Norma Grier, the executive director of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. “Maintaining good mulch cover will suppress weeds. Help your lawn outcompete weeds by building healthy soil with organic fertilizers, mowing high and often, watering deeply but less often, and removing thatch.”
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Is it better to buy beverages in tin cans or plastic bottles?
—Bill Lemberg, Brooklyn, NY

Now that we’ve solved the long-argued paper bag versus plastic bag debate (answer: bring your own reusable totes), it’s time to move on to a bigger challenge. Unfortunately, you can’t bring your own containers to the store and fill them up with cola, soy milk, or beer—not yet anyway.

Recycling is only one of several considerations when looking at the environmental impact of aluminum cans versus plastic bottles; another is how much fossil fuel is used (and therefore how much greenhouse gases are produced) when creating them, either from scratch or recycling. Thus the answer to your question is complicated. When it comes to ease of recycling, aluminum versus plastic is basically an even match. “Both of these materials are pretty easy to recycle, as long as there’s a collection system in place, which is the most important, first step,” says Betty McLaughlin, the director of the Container Recycling Institute. Most states offer both plastic and aluminum recycling programs. Still, fewer than a third of plastic bottles that could be recycled actually are, compared with half of aluminum cans. (This is due in part to the container deposits—that 5 or 10 cents you get back in many states when you recycle cans.) Recyclable plastics (HDPE, LDPE, and PET) make up a much larger percentage of garbage in landfills (about 3.7 percent) than aluminum cans (only 0.7 percent). Yet to create a ton of aluminum cans from virgin, mined materials and transport it produces three times the amount of greenhouse gases than it does to produce a ton of plastic bottles. However, since cans are recycled at a higher rate (most new cans are about half recycled aluminum), they save emissions—about three tons of CO2 per ton of material. Can-to-can and bottle-to-bottle recycling, says McLaughlin, is far better than turning the materials into products that will likely wind up in landfills later. The bottom line: No matter which type of container you choose, the most important step is to make sure it does in fact land in a recycling bin. And avoid single-use containers whenever possible.

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