Profiles in Garbage: Lead-Acid Batteries

Laws in 39 states require retailers take back used batteries when a new one is purchased.

A battery is a device in which the energy of a chemical reaction can be converted into electricity. 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. This profile is limited to lead acid batteries used by motor vehicles.

A lead-acid battery consists of a 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 of a porous synthetic material.  More than eighty 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 of the value of the lead and plastic components of the used battery, the ease of returning a used battery when purchasing a new battery, and laws in 39 states requiring the retailer take back the used battery when a new battery is purchased.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. E-mail him at: [email protected]


Lead-Acid Batteries Facts*


  • 3.19 million tons, or 1.3% of municipal solid waste by weight.
  • 20.64 pounds  per person per year.
  • The average life of a car battery is 4 years.
  • The average life of a truck battery is 3 years.
  • The amount of lead in a car battery is 21.7 pounds.


  • 3.07 million tons or 96.2% recovery rate.
  • 98.7% of battery lead is recycled (industry data).
  • 39 states require retailers to collect old lead-acid batteries from customers who buy new batteries.
  • Nine of these states have battery deposit laws.

Recycled Content:

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


  • Should never be placed in a composting pile.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 120,000 tons or 0.1% of municipal solid waste by weight.
  • Should not be incinerated.
  • 39 states ban disposal.

Landfill Volume:

  • Negligible.


  • Average car battery weighs 39 pounds.
  • Average truck battery weighs 53 pounds.
  • Average motorcycle battery weighs 9.5 pounds.

Source Reduction:

  • In 10 years, car batteries have increased from 2,500 to 6,000 charging cycles.
  • Industrial batteries can last 10 to 20 years.

Recycling Markets:

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



Battery Council International,

Biocycle, “Garbage in America,” October 2010

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2010 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste,

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Washington,

*Data is from 2010 EPA estimates, except where noted.

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