ByMaureen Wise

Aug 17, 2021
Energizer batteries

Americans purchase billions of batteries every year to power toys, cell phones, clocks, watches, laptops, portable power tools, rechargeable vacuums, radios, smoke detectors, remote controls, and so much more. When they no longer hold their charge, it’s always a good idea to recycle them – and in some cases, it’s the law. This guide reviews common battery types you use at home and how to recycle them.

Battery recycling is on the rise. According to Call2Recycle — which runs the United States’ largest battery recycling program — battery recycling was up 11% in 2020 with 8.4 million pounds of consumer batteries recycled, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s important to recycle batteries to reclaim useful materials. Depending on the battery type, it may contain mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, silver, cobalt, lithium, or graphite. Many of these materials can be harmful if they are not disposed of properly, so recycling batteries serves the dual purpose of preserving finite resources and protecting the environment.

Unless your local recycling service tells you otherwise, don’t put your batteries in your curbside recycling — they can create a hazard. You need to take them to a separate location for recycling. You can use Earth911’s recycling search tool or Call2Recycle’s recycling search locator to find a battery recycling location near you.

Single-use Batteries

Alkaline single-use batteries

Standard single-use batteries include AA, AAA, D, 9-volt, 6-volt, and so forth. They power the household electronics you use every day, such as the TV remote control, toys, flashlights, and so much more.

Pros: Single-use batteries are produced on a greater scale than rechargeable batteries, making them initially cheaper to purchase. They are also prevalent and widely available.

Cons: Single-use batteries are generally considered more wasteful because we use them up and then throw them away when the power is depleted. And because they’re not rechargeable, we need to have extra batteries around at all times in case the battery powering an essential gadget dies.

How to recycle: Your local solid waste department may tell you 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, which phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries, making them less of a hazard when disposed of in landfills. According to Call2Recycle, “there is currently no national stewardship solution to allow for free recycling of single-use batteries, except in Vermont.” But this doesn’t mean alkaline batteries are not recyclable.

A number of national chains collect these batteries for recycling, including Batteries Plus and Home Depot, and your local hardware store may accept them for a fee. Always call first to confirm your local store accepts these battery types. If you’re unable to find a local recycling option through the Earth911 recycling database, consider mail-in recycling programs such as those offered by Call2Recycle or The Big Green Box.

Button cell batteries

Button cell batteries
Button cell batteries. Photo courtesy of James Bowe through Creative Commons

The flat, round batteries that power small items like watches, car keyless entry remotes, hearing aids, and fitness trackers are called button cell batteries or button batteries. Previously, these batteries were commonly made with silver, cadmium, or mercury. Today, most button batteries contain lithium. It’s important to recycle these batteries because these metals are a limited valuable resource and can be hazardous if not handled properly.

Pros: Button cells are increasingly targeted for recycling because of the value of recoverable materials, their small size, and their easy handling relative to other battery types.

Cons: Don’t let the size fool you. Even tiny batteries that contain mercury, silver, cadmium, or lithium can be hazardous and should not be crushed or overheated. In addition, these small, shiny discs appeal to children and can be harmful or fatal if swallowed or stuck in a child’s nose or ear — keep them away from small children.

How to recycle: For some items, such as a high-end watch, a professional will replace these batteries, so ask the business if it will recycle the battery for you. For other items, like hearing aid batteries or car remote batteries, the doctor’s office or car dealership may have a recycling program. You can also search for a local solution through Earth911’s recycling search tool. Otherwise, consider mail-in recycling programs such as those offered by Call2Recycle or The Big Green Box. Finally, these batteries may be accepted for disposal through household hazardous waste (HHW) collection programs sponsored by your solid waste district or municipality. Find an HHW disposal location near you — just enter your ZIP code.

Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable household electronics

Rechargeable batteries are becoming more prevalent in cordless products such as cordless vacuums, toothbrushes, and power tools.

Pros: Because rechargeable batteries can be used over and over again, they can save consumers money over the life of each battery. Also, due to the Battery Act of 1996, providing easy ways for the public to recycle these batteries is mandated by law.

Cons: Rechargeables are more expensive upfront and sometimes get a bad rap for not offering enough “bang” for your buck. They also contain a lot of heavy metals, meaning that if you don’t recycle them, contamination to the environment is much more likely.

How to recycle: More than half of the states in the U.S. have laws in effect that require that state battery recycling in effect and/or require manufacturers to support those efforts. If you live in an area that’s not covered by such laws, Call2Recycle is a great place to start your recycling search. Through Call2Recycle’s program, retailers such as Alltel, AT&T, Best Buy, Black & Decker, DeWalt, The Home Depot, Interstate All Battery Centers, Lowe’s, Milwaukee Electrical Tool, Office Depot, Orchard Supply, Porter Cable Service Centers, RadioShack, Remington Product Company, Sears, Staples, Target, US Cellular, and Verizon Wireless all offer some sort of rechargeable battery recycling program.

The nickel from these types of batteries can be recycled into flatware, pots and pans, golf clubs, or new batteries.

Cellphones, laptops, and other portable electronics

Cellphone Li-ion battery
Li-ion battery in cellphone. Photo by Tyler Lastovich from Pexels

Lithium-ion or lithium-ion polymer (Li-ion) batteries are commonly found in cell phones and other portable consumer electronics.

Pros: Lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, and the metal content of these batteries can be recovered in the recycling process. These batteries can be recharged before they are completely discharged without affecting the energy capacity. Li-ion batteries are smaller, lighter, and provide more energy than older battery types used for portable devices.

Cons: Li-ion batteries should never be sent to a landfill because they have the potential to overheat and explode when exposed to hot temperatures or compressed.

How to recycle: You will more than likely dispose of a Li-ion battery along with an electronic device, such as when you trade in your cellphone or upgrade a laptop. In most cases, the company that handles your electronic device will accept the battery as well. Call2Recycle’s program also covers these batteries, so finding recycling locations shouldn’t be a challenge.

Frequently, these types of batteries can be refurbished and reused. Lithium-ion batteries can also be broken down into steel and stainless steel components.

Feature image courtesy of Vincent Brown

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies and organizations. She also is a sustainability consultant and previously worked in higher education sustainability and watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of an arts and environment nonprofit, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler. Wise writes eco-mysteries under the pen name Iris March.