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Profiles in Garbage: Lead-Acid Batteries

Lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate of any product sold in the United States.

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 the lead acid batteries used by motor vehicles.

A lead-acid battery consists of a polypropylene casing; lead terminals connected to positively- and negatively-charged internal plates; lead oxide; an electrolyte, which is a dilute solution of sulfuric acid and water; and plastic separators that 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. E-mail him at: [email protected].

Lead-Acid Batteries MSW Facts*


  • 2.8 million tons, or 1.2% of municipal solid waste by weight.
  • 18.24 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 21.4 pounds.


  • 2.68 million tons or 95.7% recovery rate.
  • 99% of battery lead is recycled (industry data).
  • Nine states have battery deposit laws.
  • Most states require retailers to collect old lead-acid batteries from customers who buy new batteries.

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.
  • 44 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, www.batterycouncil.org

“Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2009 Facts and Figures,” U.S. EPA, Office of Solid Waste, www.epa.gov/osw

“Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines,” National Recycling Coalition, Washington, www.nrc-recycle.org

*Data is from 2009 EPA estimates, except where noted.

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