High schooler Avni Garg has been driving the reuse and recycling of batteries across New York city since 2016. The Battery Project has saved over 1,500 pounds of batteries from going to landfills. Read how she accomplished this in our interview below.
Why did you start the initiative, the Battery Project?
My Grandmother needed a heart monitor. The monitor had a battery case filled with 4 large, triple A batteries. Before fixing the monitor onto my grandma’s chest, the technician dumped the old batteries into a garbage can and put four new ones. The can was brimming with partially used batteries. The technician explained that sensitive medical instruments only run-on fresh power, but must they be trashed like that?
In 2016, I toured the Fresh Kills Park on Staten Island, NY. This site used to be the Fresh Kills Landfill, which was the largest landfill in the world prior to its closing in 2001. Since then, the area has been developed as a wildlife haven and a park for recreation. In fact, Freshkills Park is the largest park to be developed in New York City in over 100 years. Although the Sanitation and Fresh Kills Park Departments were working very hard, it seemed to be an uphill battle to keep our city clean. I learnt that the only way out is to waste less. Reuse and recycle as much as possible.
That trip was an eye opener, because it showed me how batteries harm our environment. They make up 20% of the household hazardous materials in American landfills. As the battery casing corrodes, chemicals leach into the soil and make their way into our water supply. The same hazardous materials get to the ocean, harm our marine life and all the animals who depend on them for sustenance – including human beings. Thus directly and indirectly they poison our entire ecosystem.
Discarded batteries cause air, water, and soil pollution. Air pollution arrives in the form of greenhouse gas emissions as batteries undergo a photochemical reaction when they decompose in landfills. Batteries contain harmful acids, chemicals, and metals such as lead, manganese, nickel, mercury, and lithium. As these substances reach the soil, they result in heavy metals poisoning. They even leach their way into the water bodies and accumulate in the flora and fauna that live there. Animals including humans that consume these plants and animals, jeopardize their health and can get fatal diseases like cancer.
I made and decorated collection bins and left them in offices. I went back every 2-3 weeks to collect the batteries. I would take this opportunity to educate the staff about the harmful effects of batteries and suggest alternatives like solar powered rechargeable batteries.
The collected batteries were then weighed, sorted by size and company. I made sure they were in working condition. Then I recruited my younger brother and his friends to find pre-used envelopes, decorate them to hide previous marks and writings. We attached a message about reusing batteries and how to dispose of them responsibly. We included our website www.changewillhappen.org for more information. Then we filled them with batteries and sealed the envelopes.
We gave them away at schools, summer camps, Staten Island Zoo, Ocean Breeze athletic complex, indoor horse riding centers, the American Natural History Museum and even Ranger stations. We distributed them to our friends, neighbors and anyone who cared about the environment. I did a table event at Freshkills Park where I reach out to 800 people in a single day.
What have been the biggest challenges of founding and running this initiative? What is most rewarding?
Every pack gave me an opportunity to discuss how hazardous these batteries are to our environment. Most people don’t know that batteries have corrosive materials. Adults find it hard to take children seriously.
When I was trying to give away free battery packets, some people ignored me and just walked away, thinking that I may ask them for money. Some people did not believe that such a small battery could cause so much harm. They were under the misconception that they had been using batteries for years and nothing has happened to the environment so far.
Persistence pays, I quickly learnt to speak confidently, look them in the eye and bring along picture charts and graphs to show them proof. Not before long, I was giving talks at our local community center, at summer camps and at a science exhibition.
My project grew, I divided the states geographically into units. One unit comprises of two teams. Each team has roughly 3-4 people. We meet online once a month. Each unit is responsible to set up boxes, collect, sort and distribute batteries in their area.
A chance to tell people about the harmful effects of batteries is most rewarding. An opportunity to talk about renewable sources of energy which don’t harm the environment like solar and wind power. The reward is making people understand that we can help save our soil, our marine life and even ourselves through the simple act of reusing and recycling.
What impact has this made?
My team and I have saved over 1,500 pounds of batteries from going into the landfills. By distributing over 5,600 packets of batteries, we successfully reused over 28,000 batteries so far. Not to mention reusing 5,600 envelopes by making them into battery packs. In 2020, during the COVID pandemic, I have distributed 3,000 batteries to front line workers.
What does the future hold for the Battery Project and for the Battery Project team?
We are involved in 3 states now and hope to spread to other states the future. My team and I would like to make reusing and recycling material a part of the school curriculum. Set up awards and scholarships for innovative ideas to preserve our surroundings.
What is your best advice to other students who want to launch an initiative like this?
If I can do it anyone can! Take small steps to achieve your goal. Don’t get disheartened if you don’t get immediate results. Adjust your strategy. Keep on trying. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
What do you do in your free time?
Apart from school I like to spend my time in theater, either in front or behind stage. Recently I started learning how to work with clay.
My real passion is to help people and animals too. I have been working at the Staten Island zoo for the past five years. Being a Junior Docent at the zoo has allowed me to see the importance of habitat protection and environmental conservation. I also had the good fortune of going on a medical mission to Haiti and then to the Philippines. It was a life-changing experience.
Learn more about The Battery Project. Read more Rustic Spirit stories.