What do you do when your batteries are dead? How do you get rid of rechargeable electronics when they no longer hold a charge? Battery recycling is mandated in many areas, but consumers don’t always understand the process. If your hauler tells you not to put batteries in your recycling bin, you probably think they have to go into the trash instead. It’s not that simple.
Each year, Americans dispose of billions of batteries. Of those batteries, the majority are single-use batteries, but there are also rechargeable batteries ending up in landfills. Despite having programs in place to recycle batteries, people may not know where to go or how to safely get rid of them. It’s important to learn what to do with your used batteries. Tossing them out is harmful to future generations. It’s estimated that the exteriors of most batteries take 100 years to decompose. At that point, the metals and chemicals inside enter the soil or groundwater.
Today’s landfills are lined. Clay liners can fail within five years, so most landfills use HDPE plastic liners. Those are expected to last around 400 years. It’s too early for anyone to know if that’s what will happen though.
Batteries contain toxic materials like cadmium, lead, lithium, mercury, nickel, silver, and sulfuric acid. The Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996 ended the use of mercury in batteries, but some button cells still have mercury in them.
They can all end up in the groundwater and soil if they’re not recycled. Lined landfills protect the environment, but liners were not always used. It wasn’t until the late-1980s that landfills had to install liners and be capped properly, and have leachates tested. Landfills that closed before that requirement passed do not have to undergo monitoring.
Types of Batteries
Dozens upon dozens of batteries are on the market, and each has to be disposed of responsibly when its life cycle ends. There are dozens of types of batteries, but they’re all classified as primary cells or secondary cells. Primary cells (single-use) are your batteries that are used once and disposed of, and secondary cells (rechargeable) are used over and over. When it comes to batteries within your home, they’re going to be one of these types of batteries:
- Alkaline – Bought in packs and used in battery-powered toys and games, flashlights, remotes, non-rechargeable digital cameras, radios, and smoke/fire/carbon monoxide detectors (button cells go into calculators, hearing aids, and watches)
- Lead Acid – Boat, lawn tractor, and vehicle batteries
- Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) – Found in cell phones, electric vehicles, laptops, power banks, rechargeable power tools, and rechargeable toys Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cd) – Found in cell phones, digital cameras, and rechargeable power tools
- Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) – Found in cell phones, digital cameras, electric vehicles, and rechargeable power tools
- Small Sealed Lead Acid (SSLA/Pb) – Found in mobility scooters, motorized ride-on toys like Powerwheels, home security systems, and UPS back-ups
- Zinc Carbon – Also single-use but last longer than alkaline
All batteries contain metal, corrosive acids, and even heavy metals. Batteries leak these components into the ground if they’re put in a landfill. Plus, to make new batteries, the mining of precious materials has to take place. Recycling can help reduce the amount of mining that’s required.
Some, particularly Li-Ion, pose a fire risk if they’re improperly disposed of. One spark could cause a fire. In fact, a Washington waste hauler had a truck catch fire in 2019 after lithium-ion batteries sparked and ignited paper items that were also being recycled. That’s why many curbside haulers clearly state that batteries do not go into recycling bins. If recycling is allowed, instructions often have you placing tape over the ends or placing them in bags and setting them on top of the bin rather than at the bottom.
How Are Batteries Recycled?
How does recycling work? After batteries are collected, they’re sorted by type and chemistry. Many batteries are crushed and metals are separated by type. Once separated, they’re melted down and transferred to molds. The molded metal is sent to factories where the metal is reused to make new batteries and other products. That’s a basic process. Other types of batteries require different steps.
Alkaline, Button Cell, and Zinc Carbon Batteries:
Alkaline, Button Cell, and Zinc Carbon batteries are separated using machines to separate the brass, paper, plastic, steel, and zinc manganese. Each one is shipped to recycling facilities that process them for reuse. As button cell batteries may still contain mercury, even if it’s a small amount, they’re carefully handled to recover the mercuric oxide. Mercury is processed in a temperature-controlled environment.
Lead-acid batteries are smashed over a vat that allows lead and heavy metals to sink to the bottom while plastic floats to the surface. The plastic items are washed and dried and transferred to a plastics recycler where the plastic is melted down and turned into plastic pellets. Those plastic pellets go to factories for reuse. Sulfuric acid is collected and neutralized or turned into sodium sulfate and used in other items like commercial laundry detergents or manufacturing. The lead components are cleaned and heated to turn it to molten lead. The molten lead goes into molds. As they start to set, impurities rise to the surface of the molds and can be scraped away.
Similar to alkaline batteries, aluminum, copper, plastic, and stainless steel are removed and sorted. The lithium/cobalt salt mixture is also sorted. They’re sent for processing so that they can go to manufacturing facilities to be turned into new items.
Before any steps are taken, the plastic covering on a Ni-Ca battery is removed. The rest is melted down and separates by density during the process. High-temperature metals like chromium, iron, manganese, and nickel are put into molds to set. Low-temperature metals like cadmium and zinc separate and go into molds.
Nickel Metal Hydride
Like Ni-Ca batteries, the plastic covering is removed and recycled. The rest of it goes into special dryers to get rid of any moisture. Once dried, the stainless steel and alloys can be reused.
Tips for Recycling Different Types of Batteries
What are the best practices for recycling batteries? When possible, place batteries in their original packaging for quick identification. Tape the ends with clear packaging tape, place them in clear bags, and bring them to one of the recycling facilities found in our list. Most facilities want clear tape and clear bags so that they can quickly identify the type of battery when processing them.
All batteries can be recycled. Where you go for the different types may differ. If possible, look for a drop-off center that takes them all and sorts them for you.
Be careful about removing batteries from devices. Some may not be easy to remove. If they’re glued or affixed with some type of adhesive, do not try to pry the battery out. That could lead to a puncture. If you accidentally damage a battery and it is leaking or smoking, put it outside in a container filled with sand or cat litter. Don’t stand near or touch that battery again. Contact your area’s solid waste district to find out what you should do with a damaged battery.
Do you know where to recycle household batteries? If you cannot put them in your recycling bin, Recycle Nation helps you track down where to bring them. To access the Recycling Guide, enter your ZIP code, type in “Batteries,” and choose the appropriate type of battery from the list. A list of recycling locations appears along with that facility’s physical address, website, and phone information.