Pitt grad student pilots battery recycling drive

By Olivia Garber

The incident that inspired Pitt graduate student Kristen Ostermann to pilot an ongoing… The incident that inspired Pitt graduate student Kristen Ostermann to pilot an ongoing battery-recycling campaign on campus started as a joke.

Ostermann said she was about 7 years old when she saw her friend take a remote with a missing battery cover and press it to the side of her face, pretending to make a phone call. Old batteries, crusted with corrosive acid, seared the cheek of her friend, Ostermann said.

As she watched her friend’s face break out in a harsh rash, she realized, “Whoa, that sh*t’s dangerous.”

Now a graduate student at the Swanson School of Engineering, Ostermann is the driving force behind a battery-recycling campaign funded by a grant from the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.

Ten locations on campus have containers specifically for recycling batteries, which Facilities Management collects.

Ostermann said that four days after placing the containers out, some had already filled to the brim.

The idea for this project came shortly after Ostermann transferred to Pitt. She had become accustomed to the luxury of recycling batteries at her old school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, and was surprised to learn that Pitt didn’t offer the same services.

She asked around, but professors and students gave the same response: “‘Uh … I give them to CMU?’”

For Ostermann, that wasn’t going to cut it. Rather than let the damaged remains of batteries infiltrate Pittsburgh’s landfills and water systems, Ostermann began planning for a battery-recycling campaign.

“I saw what [batteries] did to someone’s face — I don’t want to drink that,” Ostermann said.

Ostermann’s research adviser Amy Landis encouraged her to apply for the $2000 grant, sponsored by MCSI.

Landis, who is a faculty member at the Civil and Environmental Engineering program, said she pushed Ostermann to apply, not only because she was interested in battery recycling, but also because it fit in with the research for her Ph.D.

Ostermann’s research focuses on life cycle analysis applied to end-of-life materials.

Laura Schaefer, deputy director at MCSI, called Ostermann’s campaign a “good idea.” She anticipates that this program will increase both the number of batteries recycled and awareness about battery recycling.

Many people are aware that batteries should be recycled, but no one knows what to do with them, Schaefer said.

Landis hopes that battery recycling will increase significantly on campus and said that Ostermann will work with Facilities Management to get a final tally once the campaign is over. There is no fixed end date for the campaign, but Ostermann plans to present some of her results at an engineering and sustainability conference in April.

The actual consequence of tossing away batteries isn’t known for sure, but in Ostermann’s opinion, it’s best to err on the side of caution.

“We don’t know if it’s bad, but it could be bad,” Ostermann said.

The Environmental Protection Agency website says that batteries can contain chemicals like cadmium, lead and mercury, which can be harmful to human health.

Because it’s hard to predict where the batteries that aren’t recycled will end up, Landis said, knowing the exact damage to the environment isn’t possible. The batteries could end up in a well-lined landfill and remain relatively safe, or they could fall into a more shoddy landfill and release toxic chemicals into the soil and water.

But for advocates, the off-chance that the batteries won’t do any harm does not erase their potential to damage the environment.

“You can’t just throw these things away,” Landis said.

Recycling batteries will not just reduce the amount of toxic chemicals dumped in the ground, it will also cut down on energy waste, Schaefer said.

Reusing the metallic wrappers — the only recyclable part of the battery — reduces the amount of energy needed to produce the batteries. The chemicals inside the battery are sequestered so they can’t leak into the environment, Schaefer said.

Ostermann is hoping the recycling effort will boost Pitt’s overall “green score.”

She said that Pitt doesn’t have a reputation for being very environmentally friendly, and she plans on seeing if placing recycling containers in high-traffic areas would contribute to people’s overall perception of Pitt’s greenness.

As for now, Ostermann is basking in the immediate gratification of making a difference. Actions to save the environment don’t always get an immediate impact, Ostermann said, but seeing the containers fill with batteries gives her a sense of accomplishment.

“I’m doing good, instead of just writing papers,” Ostermann said.

Batteries can be recycled at Sutherland, Trees Hall, Lothrop, Benedum, Litchfield Tower A, the William Pitt Union, the Cathedral of Learning, David Lawrence Hall, Crawford Hall and Posvar Hall. Any form of battery, including iPod, laptop and camera batteries can be recycled.