Smoke detectors are vital for your home. They could save your life if there is ever a fire. In many states, you are legally required to have them in a rental home.
It seems like getting rid of a smoke detector should be pretty easy. Turns out it is more complicated than you might think. Many smoke detectors contain a small amount of radiation. Because of this, it is necessary to dispose of them through proper channels rather than placing them in the trash.
We have all the information you need on how to recycle smoke detectors. We also have some tips on recycling carbon monoxide detectors, which are increasingly found in American and Canadian homes.
A few facts about smoke detectors
Smoke detectors sense smoke in your home and sound an alarm to let you know. Most of the time they are set off by food that got a bit too crispy in the oven or on the stovetop. But their true purpose is to alert you to smoke from a fire – especially in the middle of the night, when you might not be aware that a fire has started.
There are two main types of smoke detectors used in modern homes. The photoelectric smoke detector uses a laser to sense smoke. The ionization chamber smoke detector contains a tiny amount of radioactive material that creates a chemical reaction in a small chamber if smoke enters it. These devices sense smoke more quickly and are the most commonly used type in the United States.
It used to be that all smoke detectors were powered by a 9-volt battery. Increasingly, smoke detectors are wired into a home’s electrical system. This makes them more reliable, since you do not have to remember to test the battery. Many smoke detectors still contain a battery, but it is mostly there in case the electrical system stops working.
Smoke detectors as we know them today were invented in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Ermst Meili and Walter Jaeger, two Swiss scientists, pooled their knowledge of early smoke detector technology to come up with the first ionization chamber smoke detector.
Smoke detectors were not used widely until the 1960s. The old standard for detecting a fire in a building was a heat detector, but scientists showed that smoke detectors worked much better. Now you will find them in almost all homes and businesses.
Why should you recycle your smoke detector?
Chances are you have an ionization chamber smoke detector in your home. That means you have radioactive material that needs to be disposed of carefully. Even though the amount of radioactive metal in your smoke detector is small, if everyone put their smoke detector in the trash, that radioactive material could quickly become a problem. And it would remain a problem for a long time. Americium 241, the isotope found in most smoke detectors, has a half-life of 458 years.
Your smoke detector contains other materials worth recycling. The casing is most likely plastic, which will not decompose over time. Smoke detectors contain circuit boards and other components made with gold, which can also be recycled. The back-up battery in your smoke detector has metals that can be recycled into other things. Make sure you get your old smoke detector into the hands of a qualified recycler.
How to recycle smoke detectors
The best way to recycle an ionization chamber smoke detector is to return it to the manufacturer for recycling. Not all manufacturers will take their products back, but most the major companies will.
The U.S. Postal Service website has a helpful list of where to send your smoke detector for recycling
. The list includes some special instructions, such as whether you need to send a recycling fee or call ahead before mailing your smoke detector. Note that many companies want you to write “For Recycling” on the outside of the box, or include a note to that effect on the inside of the box.
Whatever you do, make sure you do not crush or otherwise damage the smoke detector in your attempt to recycle it. The Americium 241 inside the smoke detector is protected by a layer of metal and cannot harm you as long as it is contained. However, if it leaks out, it could hurt you and your family.
If you have a photoelectric smoke detector, you may not be able to recycle most of the device. However, you can definitely recycle the battery inside the smoke detector. Plan to place the rest of your smoke detector in the trash unless the device’s manufacturer or your community has some sort of take-back program.
You can also contact your local waste disposal agency to see if they have a place that accepts smoke detectors for recycling, but they might not be much help. Even most household hazardous waste centers are not set up to handle smoke detectors.
How to recycle carbon monoxide detectors
Carbon monoxide detectors alert you when a large amount of carbon monoxide has entered your home. The most likely sources of carbon monoxide are cars and heaters that burn fuel, including wood stoves and fireplaces. It is especially critical to have a carbon monoxide detector if you regularly burn wood or another type of fuel in the home. Children are particularly susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning, so getting a carbon monoxide detector is a great way to protect them.
Carbon monoxide detectors do not contain radioactive material, so you can treat them as you would photoelectric smoke detectors. Check with the manufacturer to see if they have a take-back program. If they do not, remove the battery from your carbon monoxide detector and recycle it. Throw the remainder of the device in the trash.