When it comes to recycling batteries, many people simply don’t know what to do with them or don’t realize that they are recyclable.
A recent survey, commissioned by Call2Recycle and conducted by the Harris Poll, found that about three in 10 Americans don’t believe single-use or rechargeable batteries are recyclable, and another roughly three in 10 are not sure at all. These results spotlight a gap between consumer education and battery recycling.
“Adding complexities to battery recycling is that there are different processes for rechargeable and single-use batteries, such as AA, AAA, 9V or C or D cell,” says Linda Gabor, executive vice president of external relations at Atlanta-based Call2Recycle. “This means that local household hazardous waste and municipal programs that offer single-use or alkaline battery recycling could charge a small fee.”
Danielle Spalding, director of marketing and communications for Wixom, Mich.-based Battery Solutions, agrees that awareness batteries can be recycled is the biggest barrier.
“Most consumers know they should not throw away batteries but don’t know what to do with them,” she says. “Additionally, the ‘where’ is a significant hurdle. Curbside programs often do not accept batteries and consumers are then left seeking out programs.”
Even batteries that are difficult to recycle have value in the circular economy, according to Spalding. Lithium batteries can be easily transported as long as they are packaged correctly with placards that alert transporters to their presence.
“For recyclers like us, internal safety protocols minimize risk and prevent hazardous situations,” she says. “Our specially trained sorters are well-versed in lithium safety, and we work to extend this knowledge to our customers. With safe handling, lithium, cobalt and other critical materials from these batteries can be recovered.”
Gabor says the most effective approach to recycling batteries, including lithium-ion batteries, is to start with putting more onus on the consumer than the manufacturer.
“Consumers need to be more aware of the necessity and benefits of recycling, including how it minimizes the use of natural resources and reduces solid waste. Consumers would then be more inclined to identify, remove and place batteries into a recycling stream,” she says.
After batteries are collected, they are sorted by type and chemistry. Once they are sent to a processor, the batteries are broken down into raw components that can be reused for other purposes or products. Metals, like aluminum, zinc, lead and nickel, can be recovered.
For example, used alkaline batteries are recycled into steel and new products like sunscreen and road asphalt aggregate. Lithium-ion batteries are often recycled into steel, stainless steel or new batteries, according to Gabor.
Each battery chemistry has its own pathway to material recovery, says Spalding.
“For example, the lead acid battery market is almost circular with nearly 99 percent of all lead batteries recycled. New lead batteries contain more than 80 percent of recovered lead battery material,” she says. “Additionally, the alkaline battery—the most common household battery—has a recycling process that breaks it down into steel, zinc-manganese concentrate and a paper-plastic-brass fraction. Elements are then sold back into the secondary commodity market for reuse in areas such as fertilizers.”
The two battery recyclers also offered their top five tips for safely disposing of batteries. For Call2Recycle, Gabor suggests the following:
- Safely prep the batteries. There are two options: bag or tape. Bag each battery in its own clear plastic bag before placing it in a storage container. Tape the terminals with clear packing, non-conductive electrical or duct tape, keeping the label visible. Since batteries that appear dead may contain a residual charge, they can pose a fire hazard unless they are bagged or taped.
- Store the batteries in a cool, dry place. Incidents can occur when batteries—or the devices they power, such as a cellphone or tablet—are exposed to inclement or excessively hot weather. Store them in a plastic container; avoid metal.
- If you see a swollen or bulging battery, immediately put it in non-flammable material, such as sand or kitty litter, and store it in a cool, dry place. Do not throw it away.
- Aim to drop batteries to recycle within six months, ensuring they are bagged or taped.
- Batteries cannot be thrown in the recycling bin with other recyclables, like paper, plastic or glass. This can pose a fire hazard and cause fires at recycling facilities, potentially endangering people and property. Instead, you can use Call2Recycle's locator to find the nearest drop-off site.
“Batteries power our daily lives. Recycling batteries at their end of life is an easy, green habit to adopt that prevents potentially hazardous materials from entering the waste stream and protects against fires that can be caused by trashed batteries,” says Gabor.
Spalding at Battery Solutions recommends the following utilizing the five “Cs” of recycling:
- Chemistry: What words can be found on the battery? If it says “lithium,” it must have the terminals protected when collected for recycling. Use a clear plastic tape, like scotch tape. The whole battery does not need covered, only the contact ends.
- Capacity: Is the battery or battery pack more than 9 volts? If so, the terminals of the unit need to be taped. This applies to items like cordless tool batteries. Very high capacity batteries for vehicles and other equipment may require further special packaging.
- Construction: How is the battery built? The construction of a battery factors into how it can be transported and recycled. If a battery says “nonspillable” or “sealed,” it can be put with other common household batteries. Some batteries may have protected terminals by design and do not need to be taped. If a battery contains spillable liquids, it will be collected and sent in for recycling differently than dry cells. Batteries for electric or hybrid vehicles may be sent to a recycler in the pack or disassembled. Work with the battery recycler to find the best solution.
- Cracked or Swollen: Lithium-based batteries that are cracked or swollen, or that are affected by a recall, qualify as “damaged, defective or recalled” and require special packaging for storage and transport. This may also apply to lithium batteries contained in equipment such as recalled phones with batteries that are inaccessible to the standard consumer.
- Container: Is the battery recycling container rated to contain the batteries that have to be recycled? As many curbside collection programs do not accept batteries, consumers must utilize other programs. Some collection pails are rated to carry all types of batteries, while some may have restrictions to specific chemistries. Read the details on the recycling container to make sure it covers the shipping and recycling needs for the batteries.
“Battery recycling can be easy and available to everyone,” says Spalding.