Profiles in Garbage: Batteries

A battery is a device in which the energy of a chemical reaction can be converted into electricity.

Batteries range in size and use. Small, sealed button and six-volt batteries are used for consumer products. “Starting batteries” deliver a short burst of high power to start engines. “Deep-cycle batteries” deliver a low, steady level of power for electrical accessories, such as trolling motors on boats. And large industrial batteries have thicker plates and can supply low, steady power for years.

In 1859, Gaston Plante invented lead-acid batteries, which start or power virtually all forms of transportation, except bicycles. They also provide large amounts of electricity to utilities to handle rapid power fluctuations, as well as serve as standby systems and as backup power for telephone, air traffic control towers and other critical systems during power outages.

A lead-acid battery consists of the polypropylene casing; lead terminals and positive and negative internal plates; lead oxide; electrolyte, a dilute solution of sulfuric acid and water; and plastic separators that are made from a porous synthetic material. More than 80 percent of the lead produced in America is used in lead-acid batteries.

Lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate of any product sold in the United States. This is because batteries are easily returned when a new battery is purchased and because a battery's lead and plastic components are valuable.

The new battery market is primarily for replacing batteries in cars, light and heavy duty trucks, marine transportation, golf carts, and garden tractors. In 1999, almost 82 million replacement batteries were manufactured in the United States while only 19 million original equipment automotive batteries were produced.

This profile only covers lead-acid batteries used to power trucks, cars and motorcycles, unless otherwise indicated.

Batteries Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 1.94 million tons or 0.9% of MSW by weight.*
  • 14.4 pounds per person.
  • 100.5 million batteries were shipped by U.S. manufacturers to end-users in 1999.
  • The average American purchases a new lead-acid battery every 2.7 years.


  • 1.88 million tons for a 96.9% recycling rate.*
  • 9 states have battery deposit laws.
  • 37 states require retailers to collect old lead-acid batteries from customers who buy new batteries.

Recycled Content:

  • A “typical” battery contains between 60 percent to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.


  • Lead, battery acid and plastic are not compostable. Lead-acid batteries should never be placed in a composting pile.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 60,000 tons or less than 0.1% of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • Lead-acid batteries should not be incinerated due to some of the constituents of the battery.
  • 41 states ban the disposal of lead-acid batteries in Subtitle D landfills.

Landfill Volume:

  • Negligible because of their high recycling rate.


  • The average car battery weighs 39 pounds.
  • The average truck battery weighs 53 pounds.
  • The average motorcycle battery weighs 9.5 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • 10 years ago, a car battery lasted for 2,500 cycles. Today, a battery can last for 6,000 cycles. Industrial batteries can last 10 years to 20 years.

Recycling Markets:

  • Polypropylene casings are processed and recycled into new battery casings.
  • Lead is recycled into lead plates and other battery parts.
  • Battery acid either is neutralized, treated and discharged into sewers, or processed into sodium sulfate, which is a powder used in laundry detergent, glass and textile manufacturing.


Battery Council International, Chicago, Ill. Website: www.batterycouncil. org

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va. Website:

“Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 1998,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C. Website:

Waste Age, Atlanta, “If They Ban It, Will It Go Away?,” October, 1993. Website:

*1998 U.S. EPA estimates.

Chaz Miller is director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: [email protected].