Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries every year to power radios, toys, cellular phones, watches, laptop computers and portable power tools, according to the U.S. EPA.
Despite a down economy, battery recycling is at an all-time high. According to Call2Recycle, battery recycling collection saw a 6.9 percent increase, and Call2Recycle collected 6.1 million pounds of rechargeable batteries in 2009.
But most of us just don’t know the technical lingo for the batteries we have and where to start recycling. So, we did the homework for you — a battery guide to help you understand the most common types and how to dispose of them properly.
Techie term: Alkaline manganese
Your standard single-use AA and AAA batteries are in the electrics you use daily – your remote control, toys, even smoke detectors. On average, each person in the U.S discards eight dry-cell batteries per year, according to the EPA.
The good: Single-use batteries are produced on a greater scale than rechargeables, making them initially cheaper to purchase. They are also prevalent and widely available, making recycling easily accessible.
The bad: Single-use are often considered more “wasteful,” because we consume such a large quantity of them. And this may sound redundant, but you can only use them once, increasing the need to have extra batteries around at all times in case your (insert electronic gadget here) dies.
The bin: 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 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.
Techie terms: Nickel-cadminum (NiCd) or the cadmium-free alternative nickel metal hydride (NiMH), which you’ll now find more often with name brands of rechargeable batteries.
The EPA estimates that more than 350 million rechargeable batteries are purchased annually in the U.S. Rechargeable batteries work best in high-tech devices that you will use on a regular basis, such as a digital camera. According to Carl Smith, president and CEO of Call2Recycle, “Rechargeable batteries aren’t necessary for low-cost products that don’t use much power. For example, television remote controls can sometimes last for years on a single-use battery, so it doesn’t make sense to purchase more expensive rechargeable batteries for such a low maintenance device.”
The good: This one may be a given. Because rechargeable batteries can be used over and over again, they are said to 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.
The bad: Rechargeables are more expensive upfront and sometimes get a bad rap for not offering enough “bang” for your buck. They also contain a great deal of heavy metals, meaning that if you don’t recycle them, contamination is much more likely.
The bin: While nine states have passed laws banning rechargeable batteries from landfills, New York City and the state of California have passed the only laws requiring manufacturer take-back programs. This means that in four of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., you can purchase rechargeable batteries and know exactly where you can take them for recycling.
But if you live in an area that’s not covered by this mandate, Call2Recycle is a great place to start. 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 battery recycling program.
Extra tidbit: In the debate between single-use and rechargeable batteries, find out which one came out on top.
Cell phones, laptops and other portable electronics
Techie term: Lithium-ion or lithium-ion polymer (Li-ion)
One of the newest forms of rechargeable technology is the lithium-ion battery, which is commonly found in cell phones and other popular consumer electronics.
These batteries are also being tested for usage in electric vehicles. In fact, Panasonic recently announced that it will be providing lithium-ion batteries for the new Tesla S Model.
The good: Lithium-ion batteries are recyclable, and the metal content of these batteries can be recovered in the recycling process. There is no issue of a memory effect, meaning they can be recharged before they are completely discharged without affecting the energy capacity. Li-ion are smaller, lighter and provide more energy than nickel cadmium or nickel-metal hydride batteries.
The bad: It’s imperative that Li-ion batteries are not put into a landfill because they have the potential to overheat and explode when exposed to hot temperatures. Also, lithium-ion batteries are more expensive than similar capacity NiMH or NiCd batteries. This is because they are much more complex to manufacture and are produced in smaller numbers.
The bin: You will more than likely dispose of 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. Call2Recycle’s program also covers these batteries, so finding recycling locations shouldn’t be a challenge.
Standard car batteries
Techie term: Lead-acid
Lead-acid batteries power most of our transportation vehicles, including automobiles, boats, golf carts and motorcycles. According to the EPA, nearly 90 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled.
The good: According to the EPA, nearly 90 percent of lead-acid batteries are recycled, making it one of the highest recycled item in the world. Almost any retailer that sells lead-acid batteries collects used batteries for recycling, as required by most state laws.
The bad: Car batteries are one of the most harmful products in a landfill because they are a mixture of lead and sulfuric acid.
The bin: Whether you’re a DIYer or use a mechanic when changing your battery, most retailers that sell car batteries will also take them back for recycling. AAA also sponsors the annual Great Battery Roundup, which is coming up in April.
Lead-acid batteries are recycled by separating the battery into its three main components: Plastic, lead and sulfuric acid. Reclaimers crush batteries into nickel-sized pieces and separate the plastic components. They send the plastic to a reprocessor for manufacture into new plastic products. A typical lead-acid battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.
Hybrid vehicle batteries
Techie term: Nickel metal hydride (NiMH)
The hybrid car has changed the way we think about emissions, fuel and commuting as a whole. In the recent years, it has been a must-have for greenies wanting to reduce their footprints and penny-pinchers looking to reduce fuel costs.
The good: The hybrid battery packs are designed to last for the lifetime of the vehicle, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 miles. In fact, Toyota says since the Prius first went on sale in 2000, they have not replaced a single battery for wear and tear. Most warranties cover the batteries for between eight and ten years, depending on the manufacturer.
The bad: While these batteries can be recharged hundreds of times, they may not be the best option for commuting long distances. “Nickle metal hydride is really only going to take a vehicle 35-40 miles, and that’s just not efficient in the long run,” says Peter Fannon, vice president of Government and Corporate Affairs for Panasonic
The bin: According to HybridCars.com, Toyota and Honda say they recycle dead batteries and disposal will pose no toxic hazards. Toyota actually puts a phone number on each battery, and they pay a $200 “bounty” for each battery to ensure that it will be properly recycled.
Extra tidbit: Currently, manufacturers are using NiMH batteries for hybrids and electronics. But the industry is expected to shift toward lithium soon, creating a need for recycling technology for both types of batteries.
“The shift to lithium-ion — along with many companies investing in this technology — is clearly the next near-term goal to make that the norm for electric vehicles,” says Fannon.
Watches, hearing aids and other tiny electrics
Techie term: Silver oxide or “button-cell”
Most small, round “button-cell” type batteries found in items such as watches and hearing aids are known for their size, long storage life and the ability to work well in low temperatures.
The good: 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. Silver oxide batteries are typically shredded during the recycling process to recover the valuable heavy metals.
The bad: Don’t let the size fool you. These batteries are potent, containing mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium or other heavy metals as their main component.
The bin: Due to the fact that they aren’t rechargeable, Call2Recycle’s program does not cover these types of batteries. 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.
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. Call2Recycle is one of these partners.
Feature image courtesy of Vincent Brown