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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2006
Table of Contents
Cheap Food Nation
Produce to the People
From Cotton to Collards
Ten Ways to Eat Well
Secrets of the Supermarket
Truth in Labeling
Home Cooking
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Archives
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Hey Mr. Green
Outspoken advice for all your disposal dilemmas
by Bob Schildgen

Hey Mr. Green,
What's the proper way to dispose of used household batteries? —Steve in Lakewood, Colorado

When those Energizer Bunnies' days of going and going are gone, most totter into landfills, where their innards can leach into water supplies. Alkaline batteries, the most widely used type, contain zinc that can harm certain aquatic species, but federal regulators (unlike some states) do not consider them dangerous enough to require special treatment. With no profit in recycling alkaline batteries, it can be hard to find stores or recyclers willing to accept them. Go to to see if anyone collects alkaline batteries in your area. If not, Battery Solutions (visit or call 800-852-8127) and the Big Green Box (visit or call 714-278-9211) will recycle them for a fee.

Rechargeable batteries--like those found in hundreds of millions of cell phones--should definitely be recycled, since they contain dangerous heavy metals such as nickel, cadmium, and lithium. Of the billions made each year, 5 million pounds are collected by the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), but most batteries get chucked along with the all-too-disposable products they once powered. However, thousands of stores nationwide take them back through a program sponsored by the RBRC. To find one near you, visit or call (877) 2-RECYCLE.

Hey Mr. Green,
I have suggested a few times that my church try using thick paper cups instead of Styrofoam, but they aren't listening. They say Styrofoam isn't ideal, but at least it's incinerated. What are the facts? --Anne in St. Paul, Minnesota

Oh, how I'd love to declare, "Let this (Styrofoam) cup pass from me," but life is never simple for the questioning environmentalist. Although the evil of expanded and extruded polystyrene foam (a.k.a. Styrofoam) is almost, er, an article of faith for many of us, it's not as bad as we may think. Polystyrene is no longer poofed up to its light weight with the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that once made it anathema to enviros. Still, the disgusting blizzard of Styrofoam-container litter has encouraged some cities to ban the material.

Then there's the paper-cup option. Unless your city composts used food containers, it's really no better for the environment. Either material can be consigned to the fires of Gehenna in the Twin Cities--where EPA-approved incinerators also generate power--but such combustion is a dubious strategy in an age of global warming. And while Styrofoam languishes in landfills, so does a lot of paper.

Of course, neither option challenges our throwaway culture's status quo, which involves dumping 25 billion old Styrofoam cups on the Lord's green earth each year. For occasional use, like at large church functions, disposables are not so bad, since it takes more energy to make a ceramic mug and wash it several times than to use several Styrofoam cups. But regular use will tip the balance in the mug's favor. So at home or work, where you're getting your daily coffee along with your daily bread, reusable vessels are the choice of true stewards.

Second Thoughts on Sludge
A reader's defense of the garbage disposal prompts Mr. Green to reconsider shredding the reputation of that household helper in his July/August column. Check out this and other Web-only correspondence in Mr. Green's mailbag.

Got a question on any environmental topic? Send it to Mr. Green via our Web site at

Illustration by Melinda Beck

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