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Battery Recycling: Facts, Questions, and How-to Tips

GA Anderson writes on recycling and other environmental and green ecological issues. Earth sciences and a green economy are our future.

Learn the whys, wheres, and hows of battery recycling.

Learn the whys, wheres, and hows of battery recycling.

Recycling batteries can be a social, environmental, and—in some cases—legal responsibility. There are rules and guidelines on how and what you should do, whether you're recycling old household batteries like alkaline or button-types, lithium-ion electronics batteries, or larger lead-acid car and small-motor (lawnmowers, scooters, etc.) batteries.

Some batteries are more recyclable than others. In the United States (except in California), it is considered okay to just toss used alkalines—like old AAA and AA single-use batteries—in the household trash, but it is recommended that lead-acid, Ni-Cad, and lithium-ion batteries be recycled instead of thrown away.

Why You Should Recycle Batteries

There are two basic reasons: environmental and economical responsibility.

  • Environmentally, recycling batteries keeps potentially dangerous materials out of landfills.
  • Economically, recycling saves earth resources and money.

At this point, recycling single-use alkaline household batteries isn't really economically feasible. It is being done in a couple major U.S. recycling companies, but, for most companies, the recycling costs are typically higher than the material's redeemed value. So it is environmental responsibility that drives their recycling.

The rechargeable batteries, whether lead-acid, Ni-Cad, or lithium-ion, are the most economically feasible to recycle. It's a win-win solution. Hazardous material pollution is reduced, and money and resources are saved.

Why Are Single-Use Batteries Safe to Throw Away?

In 1996, U.S. federal battery legislation addressed the issue of recycling programs for batteries that contained acid, mercury, or other heavy metals that could harm the environment. This legislation spurred the development of non-heavy-metal alkaline batteries. Other than being just one more thing in our landfills, which we should always try to reduce, they do not harm our environment.

As proof of this, when these are recycled, their end components are:

  • zinc and manganese, which are used as plant fertilizer components
  • paper plastics, which reenter our system through traditional recycling streams

What Batteries Can Be Recycled?

All batteries can be recycled, and doing so always reduces resource costs and use. But some are just more valuable to recycle.

United States

The bottom line is that those old AAA, AA, and button batteries just aren't there yet, as far as being an economic benefit to recycle. Most responsible sources (the government and the battery maker companies) say it is okay to dispose of them in your household trash. Hazardous materials use in these type of batteries was outlawed over 25 years ago in the United States.

(However, for the environmentally conscious U.S. consumer, almost every product-specific retailer, like Walmart, Lowes, Home Depot, Best Buy, Staples, etc., offers free battery recycling drop-off boxes.)

United Kingdom

But, for folks in the United Kingdom (and perhaps other countries as well), throwing batteries into the household trash is not an option. Recycling laws in the U.K. require that all batteries be recycled. This article from Britain's The Independent has the details: Battery-recycling law in force.

Most Important Batteries to Recycle: Rechargeables

The most important batteries to recycle are the ones that still use heavy metals—the rechargeable ones. Like the alkaline battery drop-off points, those same product-specific retailers also offer drop-off points for lithium-ion and Ni-cad batteries.

For the lead-acid ones, such as from cars and lawnmowers, they can be recycled at most automotive and battery retailers, in addition to local salvage centers that will actually pay you for your old battery. In the U.S., a typical old car battery will net you $5 to $10 dollars.

Batteries that should be recycled

Batteries that should be recycled

U.S. States That Require Battery Recycling

All states are covered by federal recycling laws concerning lead-acid batteries, but these federal laws apply to producers. It is state laws that apply to consumers.

Even though over 30 states have consumer-based laws, in almost every one they apply to lead-acid batteries only.

To find the laws in your state just use the link below and click on your state for laws that apply to you.

Battery Recycling Center Locator

Battery Recycling Center Locator

Where to Recycle Batteries

It is most probable that your municipality does not have a battery recycling program. You won't have a specific bin like you do for plastics and papers.

  • Drop-Off Programs: If you have a municipal recycling drop-off center, it may have a battery drop-off bin, but probably not, so your best bet is "used battery" drop-off boxes in retail stores. With the exception of convenience and grocery stores, almost every Big Name retailer that sells batteries or electronics will have these drop-off programs.
  • Salvage Centers and Parts Retailers: As previously mentioned, larger lead-acid batteries are a different matter. You can get some money for your old lead-acid batteries when you recycle them, but you will have to take them to a local salvage center, or automotive parts retailer.

Using an Online Locator to Find a Recycler

The Energizer Battery website links to some recycling center locator based on zip codes. Just click the locator link, choose your battery type and enter your zip code. A list of recycling locations for your area will appear.

How Are Batteries Recycled?

The basics are that they get crushed, hammered, and broken apart, and then their components; plastics, papers, and metals, are separated by a mechanical or chemical process and sent to different recycling streams.

Separated plastics are granualized and sent to plastic recyclers, and metals are melted, batched, and sent to metal recyclers.

Here is a brief explanation concerning lead-acid batteries:

"The battery is broken apart in a hammer mill, a machine that hammers the battery into pieces. The broken battery pieces are then placed into a vat, where the lead and heavy materials fall to the bottom and the plastic floats.

At this point, the polypropylene pieces are scooped away and the liquids are drawn off, leaving the lead and heavy metals. Each of the materials goes into a different recycling “stream”."

And here is a more complete description of the process for each type of battery from How are Batteries Recycled?

Organizations and Community Groups Can Help

Most of the retailer's battery drop-off programs use a service offered by the large recycling companies.

These companies will provide, (for a fee), boxes, containers, labels, and instructions for collecting used batteries. They even provide return shipping. A drop-off location simply buys a kit, and sends it back to the recycling company when it is full.

Typical kit costs are around $60. If you, or an organization want to participate, here are a couple contact links:

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 ga anderson