Recycling is extremely important, but as many Americans have noted, it can be a confusing process. This is particularly true when it comes to disposing of batteries.
“People have a lot of questions about batteries,” Jackie Carr, the operations coordinator at The Nature Conservancy of New York, told HuffPost. There are so many different types of batteries and various approaches and factors to consider when recycling them. But it’s worth educating yourself and doing your part to be responsible.
“It takes a little extra effort to recycle a battery than say, a plastic bottle, but it’s necessary if we want to be more sustainable and create less waste,” Carr said.
Below, we break down how to responsibly dispose of some common types of batteries.
Historically, single-use batteries contained mercury, but the passage of the Battery Act in 1996 prohibited the use of this toxic element in all types other than button cell batteries and mercuric oxide batteries.
Thus, the mercury-free, single-use batteries (aka primary cells or primary batteries) that are common in households today generally can go in the trash. But the more responsible and sustainable thing to do is to look at the battery recycling options in your community.
“Some communities have ‘drop off sites’ run by the city or county, and it is free for residents to bring batteries of any type by to drop off.”
– Cody Marshall, a strategist at The Recycling Partnership
“Always ask your local city or county recycling and garbage departments about how to best recycle batteries in your community,” Cody Marshall, a strategist at The Recycling Partnership, told HuffPost in an email. “Some communities have ‘drop off sites’ run by the city or county, and it is free for residents to bring batteries of any type by to drop off. Some city governments hold ‘household hazardous waste’ and electronics recycling events where they set up [a] special drop off location [on] a special day and residents can drive by and recycle their batteries there.”
Marshall also noted that a few cities have special programs through which residents can place batteries in a special bag next to their garbage and recycling bins for pick-up. The city or county government generally contracts with battery recycling companies to properly handle the process. The city or county’s recycling website usually offers more details.
“You can often take batteries back to retail stores like Home Depot, RadioShack and Target, but you would need to look up where to take them beforehand,” he said.
Unlike single-use batteries, which are generally safe to toss in the trash (though recycling is better), many states legally require residents to recycle their rechargeable batteries ― and even require manufacturers and vendors to help facilitate recycling services. There are multiple reasons for these policies.
“Rechargeable batteries can have some toxicity, thus should not be thrown in landfills,” Marshall said. “Recycling them in the proper channels conserves resources ― they have material in them that can be recycled and re-used. And the specific rechargeable batteries, lithium-ion, can cause fires. These are the batteries most often used in portable electronics and cars.”
Lithium-ion batteries store a lot of energy, and if crushed, they can spark and create dangerous fires, he explained. So when these batteries go in recycling or trash bins on your curb, they end up in trucks with many moving parts that can crush them, or they make it to landfills or recycling facilities where big equipment can crush them and causes fires.
You can refer to your local recycling and garbage departments and retailers in the area to find the best resources for recycling rechargeable batteries (aka secondary cells or secondary batteries). The important thing to remember is that they should not be recycled with bottles, cans and paper.
“Since it can sometimes be confusing to know what is ‘rechargeable’ and what is ‘single-use’ it is best to just recycle all types of batteries at battery recycling drop offs,” Marshall wrote. “‘Single-use’ batteries are more benign, but it is important to recycle them. Rechargeable and single-use batteries are most often taken at the same drop off locations and might have different containers at those locations.”
“The amount of single-use items that we use as a culture is appalling.”
– Jackie Carr, operations coordinator at The Nature Conservancy of New York
Although rechargeable batteries can be hazardous if not disposed of properly, Carr emphasized the importance of using them over singe-use batteries whenever possible.
“The amount of single-use items that we use as a culture is appalling,” she said. “We want to be more sustainable. Rechargeable batteries still come to the end of their lives at some point, but they’re more sustainable.”
Button Cell Batteries
As noted previously, button cell batteries can still have small amounts of mercury, so these small, round devices are hazardous waste and should be recycled through your local resources.
These kinds of batteries tend to be single-use and are found in items like watches, hearing aids, cameras and even toys. Because button batteries are often quite small, young children and toddlers have been known to accidentally swallow them, which requires immediate medical attention.
When you collect and store old batteries for recycling, you should be sure to keep them out of reach of children. It’s also best to store any used batteries in a cool, dry area and in a non-metallic container like a plastic bin or their original packaging if possible.
Ultimately, there can be a lot of variation in battery types and materials (alkaline, lithium, zinc, etc.), so it’s important to look at the specifics on the packaging and consult your local guidelines when it comes to recycling. Still, most drop-off sites will accept any type of battery, which makes it much easier to act responsibly and sustainably.