How to Recycle or Dispose of Batteries

An Overview On Recycling Batteries

We’re a power-hungry culture, looking for ways to energize everything from mobile phones to laptops to electronic toys to iPods. Our desire to have gadgets and electronics with us wherever we go has created a huge market for batteries of all shapes and sizes. And with this ever growing demand comes a growing hazardous waste problem. On average, Americans purchase and throw away 3 billion dry cell batteries annually and 99 million wet-cell batteries.[1] That’s the equivalent of about 20,000 elephants of batteries by weight. Worldwide, the solid waste that results from discharged batteries is 10 times this number.[2]

Though small, batteries that contain concentrated heavy metals like cadmium, lead, and mercury can contaminate soil and groundwater, and as such are considered hazardous waste by many municipalities, including the US Environmental Protection Agency.[3]

 

Disposable, non-rechargeable battery types

Convenient and relatively cheap, single-use, disposable batteries are what most consumers reach for when they’re looking to replace spent AAs, AAAs, Ds, and the like. These batteries are made with a wide variety of materials to accommodate the various size requirements:

  • Alkaline (common household batteries)
  • Carbon zinc (common household batteries)
  • Mercuric oxide (button batteries for medical equipment) - contain mercury
  • Silver oxide (button batteries for calculators, watches, etc) - contain silver
  • Zinc-air (button batteries for hearing aids, pagers, etc) - contain mercury

The long-term cost of powering remote controls and flashlights with disposable batteries is high, especially when you consider that you will have to always have replacement batteries on hand.

 

Reusable, rechargeable battery types

Unlike disposable batteries, rechargeable batteries are made to be used, recharged, and then used again, hundreds of times over. A single rechargeable battery can be substituted for hundreds of single-use batteries, making them highly economical, though they require a somewhat steeper upfront cost.[4] Here, too, there are several types of batteries to choose from, depending on your power requirements:

  • Alkaline (common household batteries)
  • Lithium ion (used for mobile phones, laptops, etc) - contain lithium
  • Nickel cadmium (NiCd) (used in power tools, household gadgets, smoke alarms, etc) - contain cadmium
  • Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) (similar uses as NiCd) - made without cadmium
  • Nickel zinc (Ni-Zn) (used in mobile phones and PDAs, cordless phones, power tools, laptops, radios, camcorders, toys, etc)
  • Sealed lead acid (small models used for camcorders and power tools) - contain lead

 

How to recycle or dispose batteries

As you can see, the list of metal combinations used to create batteries is pretty long, making recycling batteries a little more challenging than you might think. But today, you as the consumer have only a few rules you need to think about:

  • Recycle all batteries: Your local solid waste department may advise you that it’s perfectly safe to dispose of alkaline batteries in the trash. Though they are less toxic than other options (mercury was phased out of use in these commonly-used batteries in 1996), they are still recyclable. Others will tell you that it is impossible to recycle rechargeable batteries, but this too is not true. Keeping the materials used in both types of batteries in the production stream helps to minimize the need for virgin materials and saves energy in the long run. So be to recycle them - all of them.
  • Separate for battery disposal: By and large, different methods are used to recycle disposable and rechargeable batteries. It is therefore important that you separate these types of batteries and dispose of them differently.
  • Explore all battery recycling avenues: There are many routes you can choose to recycle your various batteries, including retail drop-off locations, mail in programs, and hazardous waste collection days. See our articles on recycling alkaline and rechargeable batteries for all of the details.





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References

1  Wastes - Resource Conservation - Common Wastes & Materials - Batteries. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2010, from US Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/conserve/materials/battery.htm

2  The Challenge: Recharge an Alkaline Battery. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2010, from Pure Energy Battery: http://www.pureenergybattery.com/pdf/rechargechallenge.pdf

3  Wastes - Hazardous Waste - Universal Wastes - Batteries. (n.d.). Retrieved July 1, 2010, from US Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/epawaste/hazard/wastetypes/universal/batteries.htm

4  (Wastes - Resource Conservation - Common Wastes & Materials - Batteries)

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