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Charlotte Area News

Is Battery Program Environmentalism Or Profit For AAA Carolinas?

Derek Rankine

Saturday is Earth Day, so it's the time of year when companies, non-profits, and advocacy groups urge you to do your part to save the environment. One example: AAA Carolinas has an annual promotion called the Great Battery Roundup, where the organization offers $5 for drivers to turn in used or junk car batteries. The program may have environmental benefits, although the going rate for used batteries is often more than double on the open market.

“We just wanted to encourage people to recycle,” says Angela Daley, AAA Carolinas spokeswoman. “By offering $5, we are giving people an extra incentive to take that step and make sure it’s disposed of properly.”

The heavy metals and acids in batteries are extremely toxic and pose an environmental hazard, but recycled batteries are also a thriving market, and $5 is well-below market price.

“The people I buy from, the consumers I buy from are generally educated on the internet, they can punch on Google and find out how much it’s worth,” says Greg Corey, owner of Carolina Core Recycling. “10 to 12 bucks is what they’re worth, and that’s what I have to pay.”

Scrap yards, used auto parts stores, and recycling plants all buy old batteries, even ones that no longer work. WFAE surveyed more than 20 local buyers and found the price consistently ranged between $10-15 dollars, although it varies depending on the commodity markets.

If the battery’s core is intact, it can be refurbished and resold. If not, the plastics and especially lead are valuable commodities that can be melted into new batteries or sold as materials. Even the liquid electrolyte in the battery can be replenished and resold. AAA Carolinas sells its collected batteries—about 50,000 each year—to a recycler, for a profit.

“I found out that our battery supplier does pay us for the batteries that it recycles,” Daley wrote in an e-mail. “This allows us to sell batteries through our Car Care Centers and mobile battery service at a discounted price, so it ends up being a wash. If we didn't recycle batteries, we would have to charge customers more for battery sales.”

A quick check of local battery prices calls this claim into question. The AAA Auto Care center on South Boulevard in Charlotte sells a new 550-amp battery for a 2007 Mazda 3 for about $120, before labor. Autozone, a national retailer, sells similarly powered batteries for the same vehicle for $97-$112.

"When comparing products, quality, price and convenience vary," Daley responded via e-mail. "Our batteries have a 6-year warranty--3 years free replacement and 3 years prorated--and are most often installed in motorists' vehicles at the site of a battery failure."

AAA Carolinas will not say how much it made from recycling batteries last year, stating that information is "contractual and proprietary." AAA clubs across the country run their own versions of the Great Battery Roundup promotion, but—since each regional club is independent—not all of the promotions are identical, according to national AAA spokeswoman GinniePritchett.

“That is definitely not the reason we do this, for monetary reasons,” says Pritchett. “I think it’s really just making sure we can provide a convenient drop off location for these batteries to be recycled or gotten rid of properly.”

Pritchett says, by AAA’s count, there are 5 million non-recycled batteries every year.  And, AAA has clout with everyday consumers who might not know they can make a bit more money from a recycler or scrap yard. At Carolina Core Recyling, Greg Corey agrees that making sure the batteries are recycled is primary.

He says those looking to dispose of a car battery “need to get it recycled. They need to go somewhere where it gets properly handled, so it doesn’t end up in the dump. That is the main goal. They don’t need to end up in the dump.”

4/19/2013 4:11 p.m. - This story has been updated with new information about AAA Carolinas' earnings last year from recycled batteries and a response from the auto club about the price of new batteries.