Recycling Mysteries: Batteries

battery recycling

In our increasingly mobile world, batteries serve quite a purpose. They power our cars, portable electronics and items we use every day. Batteries can even be made out of vegetables.

Batteries are identified by the product they’re used for (“car battery,” “cell phone battery,” etc.) or its size ( “9V”, “button cell”). But for scientific purposes, batteries’ names are based on the metals they contain. Concerning disposal, the name can be helpful because it lets you know what elements are wrapped up in that cylindrical packaging.

Battery recycling is not a matter of possibility. It comes down to the efforts you’re willing to take. Availability will also depend on where you live, as states like California have designated all batteries as hazardous waste and require that they be recycled or taken to a household hazardous waste (HHW) collection facility.

Before we outline the different types of batteries and what to do with them, consider these two points:

  1. Rechargeable batteries last considerably longer than single-use batteries, so using them means fewer batteries for disposal.
  2. All batteries have a finite life span.

Alkaline Manganese Batteries

Where It’s At: Alkaline batteries are used in everything from cameras and flashlights to remote controls.

What to Do: If you talk to your local solid waste department, you may be instructed to put alkaline batteries in with your regular trash. This is partly due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed in 1996 that phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries, making them less of an issue when disposed in landfills. But this doesn’t mean alkalines are not recyclable.

If you’re unable to find a local recycling option, you can consider mail-in recycling programs. They are also accepted for recycling at all Batteries Plus locations.

If you do decide to put alkaline batteries in the trash, as in most cases this is legal, you can take extra steps to prevent leaking such as:

  1. Putting multiple batteries in the same plastic bag
  2. Securing the ends of each battery with masking tape

End Result: Recycling these batteries can recover steel and zinc, two valuable metals. In the case of steel, it can be reprocessed into rebar.

Nickel-Cadmium (Ni-Cd) Batteries

Where It’s At: Ni-Cd batteries are the inexpensive rechargeable form of alkaline batteries. They can be recharged hundreds of times to avoid disposing of batteries and are, for the most, part interchangeable with alkalines.

A cadmium-free alternative to these batteries is Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH), which you’ll now find more often with name brands of rechargeable batteries.

What to Do: One little known fact about Ni-Cd batteries is that part of the built-in price is to cover proper disposal. Due to the presence of the toxic metal cadmium, these batteries are considered hazardous waste and are not allowed in landfills.

In 1994, the rechargeable battery industry formed the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which provides collection locations for both Ni-Cd and Ni-MH batteries in thousands of retail stores and public agencies.

End Result: In the case of both batteries, recycling involves using heat to separate the high temperature metals, such as nickel and iron, from the low temperature ones, like zinc and cadmium. Some of the metals solidify after they melt, while others are reprocessed as metal oxides. These metals all have value.

Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) Batteries

Where It’s At: One of the newest forms of rechargeable technology is the Li-ion battery, which is commonly found in cellular phones and consumer electronics. These batteries are also being introduced as the power source for electric vehicles.

What to Do: It’s likely that you’ll be disposing a Li-ion battery along with an electronic device, such as upgrading a cell phone or selling a laptop. In most cases, the company that handles your electronic device will accept the battery as well. The RBRC program also covers these batteries, so finding recycling locations should not be a challenge.

End Result: These batteries are recycled in the same way as Ni-Cd batteries and produce valuable metals.

One reason to not store Li-ion batteries or put them in a landfill is that they have the potential to overheat and explode when exposed to hot temperatures. If you’re starting a collection of these batteries before you recycle them, it’s a good idea to store them in a cool location.

Silver Oxide Batteries

Where It’s At: This is the more common form of the button cell battery, which you’ll usually find in calculators, hearing aids and wristwatches. In addition to their small size, button cells are known for a long storage life and the ability to work well in low temperatures.

What to Do: Silver oxide and other button cell batteries also contain mercury, which makes recycling a must. But due to the fact that they aren’t rechargeable, RBRC’s program will not cover them. Luckily, you’ll have fewer button cells to recycle since they aren’t as common and last longer.

In many cases, a professional will replace these batteries, so ask the business if it will recycle the battery for you. If not, often times these batteries are accepted as part of household hazardous waste programs sponsored by your state or county. Button cells have an alphanumeric code, and the first letter indicates what type you have (“L” for manganese dioxide, “S” for silver oxide).

End Result: Silver oxide batteries are typically shredded during the recycling process to recover the valuable heavy metals.

Lead-Acid Batteries

Where It’s At: These are the batteries that primarily power automotive units, such as cars, boats, golf carts, motorcycles and even lawn mowers.

What to Do: Just keep doing what you’re probably already doing. Lead-acid batteries have a 97 percent recycling rate, the highest of any consumer product in the U.S., which is good because they’re one of the most harmful products in a landfill with a mixture of lead and sulfuric acid.

If you buy a new car battery, ask about recycling options for the old one when it’s installed. You can also participate in the AAA-sponsored Great Battery Roundup, which takes place every year in April.

End Result: Lead-acid batteries are recycled by separating the battery into its three main components: Plastic, lead and sulfuric acid.

  • The polypropylene plastic is reprocessed into new battery cases
  • Lead pieces are cleaned and also reprocessed for use in new batteries
  • The battery acid is either neutralized and then sent through a waste water treatment plant to be cleaned for human consumption, or it’s converted into sodium sulfate that’s used in laundry detergent

The Rest

If you have other types of batteries, the first step is determining what chemicals they contain, which will tell you if they are classified as hazardous waste. The presence of cadmium, lead or mercury will indicate that you’re dealing with HHW.

Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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Comments

  1. Articles are interesting and useful, but correct English is important, too.

    PLEASE learn the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’: if you can count whatever it is, then it’s ‘fewer’, not ‘less’. That means it’s ‘less waste’, but ‘fewer batteries’ and ‘fewer button cells.’

    Thanks. Keep up the good work. -Larry Levin-

  2. I volunteer for my son’s elementary school’s green club (Midlothian, VA). We recently started a battery recycling program there with great success. We would bring the batteries to our local Batteries Plus for recycling. Just this past weekend, I was told that they are no longer contracted with the recycling company they were working with, and thus, no longer accept alkaline batteries for recycling. Has this been everyone else’s experience.

  3. Rechargeable batteries are widely recycled at stores such as Home Depot, Lowes and Best Buy. Some folks at these stores CLAIM that they also take single-use alkaline batteries (Duracell, Energizer, etc.). They actually do not – they throw them out.

    The only place I’ve found here in SE Pennsylvania that recycles single-use batteries is IKEA.

    IKEA recycles single-use and rechargeable batteries, CFL Light Bulbs, Ink Cartridges, Paper, Cans, Bottles & Plastic Bags. Our school’s “Green Team” collects the batteries and we “carpool” them down to the IKEA.

  4. Useful information on battery recycling might also include a list of companies, stores, and services that can be found in communities that accepts batteries for recycling. Just a suggestion.

  5. DOES ANYONE KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY YOU CAN MAKE RECYCLING CAR BATTERIES. AND IF ANYONE KNOWS OF A BATTERY RECYCLING CENTER IN NORTH CAROLINA FOR CAR BATTERIES.

  6. trey how u doin today this is alex papa from valdosta GA i have alot of questions on recycling. ive spent months searching the net for looking for answers while i veiw the internet as a valuable asset. it just cant answer all my questions. at this point i need live feedback please if u can email me at alex_papa39@yahoo.com trying to secure my daughters future has been a tedious process. please help i promise not to waste ur time

  7. Author

    The internet can be a great resource for information on recycling, but so can your local solid waste authority since many answers about recycling will depend on where you live. Usually your local county or city will have a department of solid waste, or at least a public works department.

  8. Pingback: Random Linkage: Recycling Batteries, Left-over Ingredients, Kitchen Tips

  9. Folks: Have you noticed how most of the discussions of “hazard” are either designed to scare the pants off of you or show you how so-called improper recycling in other countries is dangerous or to instruct you how to throw things away? Where do you suppose these things go when they are thrown away? Into dumps, or deep into the earth, as wasted resources. Who started the notion that dangerous ingredients trumps common sense? Chemicals are valuable resources. So are most metals. Hazard has nothing to do with the need to keep them reused and circulating forever so new ones don’t have to be mined or made or discarded. Have you noticed that the scare stories about improper recycling of electronics never show you any “proper” recycling? Could that be because there is no such thing? Recycling is an obsolete, wasteful, garbage friendly way of thinking. What is needed is to redesign all of these products so they can be reused again and again in their highest, functional forms, not smashed into useless shards. See http://www.zerowasteinstitute.org. .

  10. San Luis Obispo County, California Battery Retail Take-Back Program

    DID YOU KNOW………….Household batteries and cell phones are considered hazardous because they contain toxic ingredients including mercury, lead, and cadmium. Because of these contaminants, it’s now illegal in California to throw away these items in your garbage or recycling can, or to dispose of them at area landfills. Instead, you should take back dead batteries and cell phones to any area business that sells them for FREE disposal.
    Beginning in April of 2008, a county-wide ordinance established a “Take Back Program” for household batteries and cell phones. Rest assured that, if a business in our community sells batteries or cell phones, they are required to take back those items from the public for FREE disposal.

  11. James

    posted on August 16th, 2009 at 4:44 pm

    I just found a battery recycling program using the mail – batteryrecycling.com. They accept all dry-cell batteries, including AA, AAA, etc. It is like the CFL mail in programs, such as http://veoliaes-ts.com/recyclepak

    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    LOL !!! You run up your credit card paying $50.00 for recycling boxes, can’t pay the rest of your bills, and declare bankruptcy.
    I then pay for your defaulting [EDITED] with my tax money I saved, by throwing my bulbs and batteries in the trash.
    Isn’t the circle of life a wonderful thing??

  12. in a developing country like Nigeria how do i manage large quantity of battery waste owing to non availability of facility for the management of conventional waste eg garbage. pls i really want to know how i can manage these waste locally. mind you there is no market for sale of recycled produce and these waste have to give way sustainably

  13. All I can say is that I’m tired of the whole trash/recycle quest. We hunt for hours and days to find the right way to dispose of batteries, medicine bottles, and other “questionables”, and all we can really come up with is the following stock recommendations that may or may not be correct:

    – Check with your local authorities.
    Regulations change frequently and no one really knows what the current rules are so when some government office tells you to bring the items to some depot there’s no guarantee that the depot will agree that that’s where you’re supposed to bring the items. Been there, done that.

    – Find a business that accepts specific items.
    Frankly I don’t trust businesses to do anything more than trash what we’ve carefully separated from the trash. There’s no regulation/enforcement/motivation to ensure people do what’s right.

    – Mail in the items.
    It seems to me that all this does is to get the mail service to exhaust more harmful emissions to transport items so that we can feel good about proper disposal. Local disposal is preferred.

    And then there are all of the nuances: It is recyclable if it has the letter Q or the number 6, but not if it’s R or 5 – unless it’s blue and manufactured after 2008 in which case it may be OK in some parts of the country. Oh please – consumers absolutely cannot take an hour to make a decision about how to dispose of every piece of material they touch in their lives.

    I have containers full of things that shouldn’t be thrown in the trash, and all of them need to go to separate places where they may or may not be accepted and may or may not be trashed once they are accepted. I have family, friends, and neighbors who don’t think twice about throwing away batteries while I try diligently to avoid doing so. So in the end, I ask myself “what’s the point?” I’ll keep trying to do my part but the phrase “drop in the ocean” comes to mind a lot around here.

    Here’s a suggestion to America: we put everything but “obvious” trash in the recycle bin and hire a lot of people who are out of work in this poor economy to filter through it and dispose of it properly. Unfortunately Americans (in particular) are too busy with consuming and creating trash, and they would rather be unemployed than to take jobs that involve filtering through trash.

    Sorry, just need to vent a little.

  14. Batteries are separate in to there 3 componets, plastic, lead, and acid, I say that every comunity should make it an addition to there recycling programs by promoteing it as a job opportunity to become a battery recycling center. And they can offer insentives, for start up.. help with complance with regulation, and grants. Hey I think I will make that my new passion, then I can show others how to do it. I live on an Island and I have investigated where our batties go. They are shipped to 3rd world countries and stored in warehouses where they leache in their ground water, not ours, yea!, thats recycling. But what if we become responsible for our waste, wouldn’t that be something!

  15. I could really use your help! I’m trying to find an organization that would help us (The City of League City, Texas) recycle our used household batteries. (Dry-cell to begin with) We are looking to possibily enlarge our recycling program here that we are now providing to our citizens and we’re trying to make sure that we are covering all the bases. Please contact me if you have any information that would assist us. In the future, League City Texas could become a example for other surrounding cities to follow. Thank you.

  16. Pingback: Quick Tip: Use Rechargable Batteries | How to Reuse it Creatively

  17. I seems a good system to set up would be for each and every community, or larger cities can set assign several drop-off points, that are very local, to deal with the recycled batteries, but in-bulk. That way the mailing costs can be handled with a large quantity sent off for recycling at once, instead of each household doing this. Local drop off centers, yes?

  18. Hi Trey,

    Your article on the various types of batteries is excellent and I learned a great
    deal from reading it.

    I’ve begun what is called Spring cleaning” and this includes recycling all the
    batteries that have no more useful life to them but need to be properly
    recycled. This article couldn’t have come at a better time to help me
    sort through them all.

    Keep up the great job! Thank you!

  19. Thanks for the breakdown on the battery types and possible recycling options. My community does not recycle alkaline batteries and I have felt bad about putting them in the trash all these years. I am glad to hear that they are not so terrible these days. I did not know that the button batteries were hazardous. Thanks to your info, I will treat them differently.

  20. Well there are website out there that will buy your batteries for $2.00
    So search the search engine for sites

  21. There’s a company that makes their own brand of batteries that they recycle for free, PerfPower Go Green batteries. You can buy them at retail stores for households or buy on a larger commercial scale for hospitals and other municipalities. It’s easy because all you have to do is buy this brand and then they do all the work recycling them for you…no tricks, it’s all free!

  22. I currently pay $1.00 a pound for Lithium Ion Batteries and $20 a pound for Silver Oxide Watch Batteries. I also buy Nickel metal Hydride and Cadmium Batteries. I will come to you and pay cash.. Thank you
    Dan
    619-207-1629

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