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  • Kim Piekos

Charged with Determination: Lake Forest Teen Spearheads Battery Recycling Program

By Kim Piekos

When Lake Forest teen Riya Bhatia and her mother came upon a box of old batteries in her family’s closet, they wondered how they should be properly handled. Concerned about the environment, Bhatia set out to find the answer. The beneficiary: Lake Forest. Starting this year, residents can deposit their batteries and old cell phones in the collection box at the city’s Compost & Recycling Center on Route 60 on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the winter. Batteries include single-use alkaline batteries and rechargeable batteries; old cell phones are also accepted. Batteries should be taped or bagged before being deposited at the center. Instructions are provided at the center.

Thanks to Riya Bhatia, residents can now deposit their batteries and old cell phones in the collection box at the city’s Compost & Recycling Center.

Research led Bhatia to Call2Recycle, the country’s largest battery and cell phone recycling company. It produces a fireproof box that collects 66 pounds of batteries. Once full, individuals or communities return the box to the company, which sorts and recycles the batteries. Countries including the U.S., Canada, France, Belgium, Japan and South Korea handle the recycling depending on the type of the battery. Her due diligence included calling the company. “I wanted to make sure we didn’t send batteries to developing countries where it could negatively impact their environment,” says Bhatia, who became aware of environmental issues after learning about the need for water conservation when she lived in California in fifth grade.

When batteries are thrown in the trash and end up in landfills, they leak toxic chemicals that can get into aquifers and water supplies, endangering humans and animals. Only four percent of alkaline batteries and less than five percent of lithium batteries are recycled currently.

“There is a real need for this program,” Bhatia emphasizes.

Armed with helpful information and an affiliation with Green Minds, a local organization aimed at making Lake Forest and Lake Bluff more sustainable communities, Bhatia approached the Reagan Walsh, a City of Lake Forest employee and staff liaison to the Lake Forest Environmental Sustainability Committee. The committee welcomed Bhatia’s interest in setting up a battery recycling program in Lake Forest, and together, with Green Minds, they did. Lake Forest’s Sanitation Supervisor Brian Pogachnik also provided his expertise in setting up the program.

“I was expecting a lot of red tape and bureaucracy working with a city government, but found the opposite,” Bhatia notes.

The new sign at the Compost & Recycling Center. Only four percent of alkaline batteries and less than five percent of lithium batteries are recycled currently.

In addition to initiating the battery recycling program, Bhatia has also worked with the Lake Forest Library to create a list of children’s books that introduce youngsters to environmentalism in a non-threatening way. “I find, even as an 18-year-old, that messages about the state of the environment can be terrifying,” Bhatia admits. “I wanted to choose books that speak to kids about the value of preserving nature and give them a better sense of what they can do to make a difference.”

She also is creating a garden for students attending Evanston’s Robert Crown Center’s afterschool program. A senior at Beacon Academy in Evanston, Bhatia looks forward to studying environmental science in college next year.

“I wanted to leave Lake Forest and Evanston a little more sustainable when I head off to college next year,” she says.

Bhatia is planning to approach Evanston next to create a battery recycling program and is considering creating a framework to guide other high schoolers in implementing battery recycling programs in their communities. “I want my peers to know that if something is concerning them or feels out of their control, they are capable of making a difference by doing one seemingly small thing,” she says. “Go for it and stick to it. If you persevere, you can make a difference.”

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