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Discarded electronics are piling up fast, pushing researchers to explore creative ways to reduce the resulting trash, known as e-waste. Now one team has crafted a water-activated disposable battery made of paper and other sustainable materials.

The wires, screens and batteries that make up our devices—not to mention the plastic, metal and other materials that encase them—are filling up landfills with hazardous debris. Some e-waste is relatively large: old flip phones, air conditioners and radios, to name just a few common items. Other e-waste is more insidious, such as electronic single-use medical diagnostic kits, environmental sensors and smart labels that contain disposable batteries and other equipment.

“It’s these small batteries that are big problems,” says Dele Ogunseitan, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a green technology researcher and adviser for major technology companies, who was not involved in the development of the paper battery. “Nobody really pays attention to where they end up.”

Researchers at the Cellulose & Wood Materials Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) are working to address this overlooked problem. This week they published a paper in Scientific Reports describing a new water-activated paper battery they developed out of environmentally friendly materials. Such a device could eventually present a sustainable alternative to the more harmful batteries that are common in low-power devices.

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