From smartphones and laptops to TV remotes and game controllers, batteries power just about every aspect of our busy, jam-packed lives. We rely on them to keep our smoke detectors functioning, our power tools revved up, our watches ticking, and so much more. But what happens when those batteries run out of juice?

For decades, the only answer was to chuck them into the trash. That resulted in potentially flammable and harmful chemicals poisoning the planet, as well as additional pollution from landfill disposal and incineration. Not only that, but valuable materials contained in the old batteries were simply going to waste. Thankfully, the rise of safe, efficient and accessible battery recycling practices proves that greener minds are prevailing.

Recovering lead, nickel, cobalt and other materials from batteries helps reduce waste.
Recovering lead, nickel, cobalt and other materials from batteries helps reduce waste.

Battery Recycling Made Easy

In North America, companies like California-based Retriev Technologies are leading the way in safe and effective battery recycling efforts. Retriev has spent the past 30 years researching and developing technologies to recover battery components and treat them in the most environmentally sound way possible. This closes the eco-loop on batteries, and also makes it possible to reuse valuable battery materials.

Recycling batteries isn’t just a safe idea — it’s a smart idea. More than 10 billion alkaline batteries are manufactured every year, representing 80 percent of the batteries that are manufactured in the United States.

In each of those batteries, valuable materials like lead, nickel, cobalt, zinc, manganese dioxide, and steel have the potential to be recycled and reused. When those resources can be recovered from old batteries, there’s less need for environmentally damaging mining of virgin materials.

How Retriev Recycles Batteries

Retriev has developed different types of technologies to process and recycle a variety of the battery types, including lead acid, NiCad and NiMH, lithium ion, primary lithium, and alkaline.

For alkaline batteries, which are widely used in consumer products (think AA, AAA, C and D batteries), Retriev first separates the steel battery casing from the electrodes (manganese dioxide and zinc). The steel is cleaned of impurities and sent on to be used in new products. And — in a revolutionary development — the electrodes undergo further processing, resulting in highly pure products that can be used in place of virgin materials to create new batteries.

For other battery types, such as lithium ion, large batteries and battery packs go through a careful disassembly process to separate electronics and casing from actual battery cells. From there, battery cells are fed into an automated crusher that uses a liquid solution to control emissions and reactivity of the processed batteries. Copper, aluminum and cobalt can be recovered and sent off for metal purification and recycling. Over the past 20 years, Retriev has processed 25 million pounds of lithium ion batteries.

Retriev Technologies tailors the recycling process to the type of battery. Photo by Mike Elicson
Retriev Technologies tailors the recycling process to the type of battery. Photo by Mike Elicson

How Consumers Can Do Their Part

All of Retriev’s recycling technology is at the fingertips of everyday consumers due to the company’s specialized battery recycling program and commercial partnerships.

One of these efforts is the Big Green Box. This all-in-one option lets consumers, businesses, and organizations order a Big Green Box, use it to collect their old batteries, and ship everything back to one of Retriev’s EPA-permitted facilities for easy, no-fuss recycling.

Another one of Retriev’s consumer-focused programs is its partnership with internationally known brand Energizer. By using Retriev’s battery processing and recycling technology, Energizer has been able to create its line of EcoAdvanced batteries, which last longer than Energizer’s other alkaline batteries and are made using 4 percent recycled battery materials — what was once impossible for decades. The two companies are continuing their green efforts with the goal of making batteries with as much as 40 percent recycled material by 2025.

By closing the loop on today’s batteries and contributing to the future of more efficient and environmentally friendly batteries, Retriev is helping power the planet now and for generations to come.

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Retriev Technologies is one of these partners.

By Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.