Lead-Acid Batteries

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. 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, which are made of 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 of the ease of returning a used battery when purchasing a new battery and the value of the lead and plastic components of the used battery.

Chaz Miller is state programs director for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington, D.C. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org

Lead-Acid Batteries Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Facts:


  • 1.99 million tons, or 0.9%.*
  • 13.97 pounds per person.*
  • 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 21.4 pounds.


  • 1.86 million tons or 93.5%.*
  • 10.5 billion pounds of spent battery lead or 97.1% from 1997 to 2001 according to industry data.
  • 9 states have battery deposit laws.
  • 38 states require retailers to collect old lead-acid batteries from customers who buy new batteries.

Recycled Content:

  • A “typical” battery has 60% to 80% recycled lead and plastic.


  • Should never be placed in a composting pile.

Incinerated or Landfilled:

  • 130,000 tons or 0.1% by weight.*
  • Should not be incinerated.
  • 41 states ban disposal in Subtitle D landfills.

Landfill Volume:

  • Negligible.


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

Source Reduction:

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

Recycling Markets:

  • Polypropylene casings can be 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 http://www.batterycouncil.org

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Alexandria, Va. http://www.nrc-recycle.org

“Municipal Solid Waste In the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, 2004. http://www.epa.gov.osw

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

*2001 U.S. EPA estimates.