New watch battery laws to impact CT, RI, ME
Dallas—New laws surrounding mercury levels in watch batteries set to take effect next summer will impact retailers in three states who sell watches or list watch battery replacement among their services.
Henry Kessler, president of Sy Kessler Sales Inc., the North American headquarters for Renata batteries, said beginning July 1, 2011, laws will go into effect in Connecticut and Rhode Island banning the sale and distribution of button-cell batteries containing mercury. This ban includes silver oxide (SR watch) batteries, which constitute about 90 percent of the batteries jewelers sell today.
The State of Maine enacted a similar law but then modified it by initially limiting the new law to five types of silver oxide batteries—357, 364, 371, 377 and 379—until January 2015. After that, all button-cell batteries in Maine must be free of mercury.
What this means for retailers in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine is that all the watches they sell starting in July 2011—whether it is a new watch or one that has been in stock for some time—must contain mercury-free batteries, and jewelers who offer battery replacement must make sure those batteries they are swapping in are mercury free as well.
The mercury-eliminating state laws on the table now are rooted in a push to be more environmentally friendly and cut down on the level of heavy metals in products in general.
"Mercury is a heavy metal, and people are trying to eliminate the use of heavy metals in all products," Kessler said.
Like most "green" measures, however, mercury-free batteries come with a higher price tag. Kessler said his company would be charging 7 percent more for mercury-free silver oxide batteries because of the additional manufacturing steps involved in their production.
He recommends that jewelers in Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island immediately begin setting aside their silver oxide button-cell watch batteries for recycling. He notes that with the high price of silver—$25.68 an ounce at press time, according to Kitco.com—scrap watch batteries are going for about $25 a pound.
Kessler said retailers might be surprised to learn that any batteries today contain mercury as certain mercuric oxide batteries, such as those used in the old Bulova Accutron watches, were banned years ago. But the production of mercury-free button cell batteries is a fairly new phenomenon.
According to background provided by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), the principal trade association for the U.S. electrical product industry, battery manufacturers voluntarily eliminated mercury from standard-sized alkaline and carbon zinc batteries in the 1990s. The technology was not available then, however, to do the same for smaller button-cell batteries (named "button" for their size), the primary power source for watches as well as hearing aids.
Because of this, button-cell batteries are the only batteries that continue to contain trace amounts of mercury. Kessler said that a few milligrams of mercury are added to the battery-production process for alkaline (LR-novelty), silver oxide and zinc-air (ZA hearing aid) button cells in order to prevent the battery from expanding or leaking. (There is no mercury added during the production of lithium batteries.)
Renata, which is owned by The Swatch Group, introduced its line of 0 percent mercury silver oxide batteries at BaselWorld in April of this year. Today, Kessler said 70 percent of Renata's silver oxide battery inventory is mercury-free. The company plans for that number to be 100 percent by December or January. He said no other battery brand has really brought mercury-free silver oxide button-cell batteries to the U.S. market, though he notes that Energizer is said to have some coming soon.
"No other brand is offering a full line of mercury-free silver oxide batteries in the United States except for Renata currently," said Kessler, who also serves on the board of directors for The American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute and is chairman of that group's Industry Advisory Board.
Mark Kohorst, senior manager for environment, health and safety at NEMA, said NEMA member companies, Renata, Panasonic, Kodak, Energizer, Duracell and Rayovac, are working toward the common goal of eliminating mercury in button cells.
"The manufacturers are working as hard as possible to transition over to mercury-free. Everyone is working independently and some have gone farther than others," he said.
Kohorst also notes that NEMA is considering the need for legislative change in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine that would allow retailers to sell through any products on their shelves or in the supply pipeline beyond the July 2011 target date, meaning that the law would apply only to newly purchased watches to start.
"We may try to work it out so they can continue to sell those watches [until] ultimately all the watches they sell will have mercury-free batteries in them," he said.
Whether NEMA will ask for this modification to the law, however, has not been determined. "It's under discussion," Kohorst said.
In addition the laws in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine, Louisiana has enacted a law that bans the sale of all mercury-containing batteries after July 1, 2012, but the law only applies to mercury levels greater than 10 milligrams per cell. Kessler said no Renata battery contains this much mercury.
Kohorst said while he could not speak to the mercury content in other specific battery brands, NEMA data on file shows that the amount of mercury in silver oxide button cells ranges from 0.74 mg to 16.27 mg, with an average of 3.1 mg.
Outside of these four states, Kohorst said he does not know of any other states expected to enact new mercury laws impacting button-cell batteries in the near future.