News Environment How to Recycle Batteries By Katherine Gallagher Katherine Gallagher Writer Chapman University Katherine Gallagher is a writer and sustainability expert. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Chapman University and a Sustainable Tourism certificate from the GSTC. Learn about our editorial process Published March 2, 2023 08:30AM EST Share Twitter Pinterest Email Przemyslaw Klos / EyeEm / Getty Images News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive As the world slowly transitions to cleaner energy, batteries are increasingly in the news. But batteries come with a perplexing twist: What to do with them once they've died? Do you find yourself with a drawer full of loose batteries that you don’t really know what to do with? Whether single-use, rechargeable, or from your vehicle, batteries are recyclable—but it's not as simple as tossing them into the curbside bin. States have different policies regarding battery disposal. California, for example, considers discarded batteries as hazardous waste, making them illegal to throw into the trash. The state has plenty of resources for ways to safely dispose of batteries, however, from local drop-off centers to mail-in services. In San Francisco, residents who live in single-family homes or small multifamily buildings can put loose household batteries inside a tightly sealed plastic bag, and place them on top of their closed landfill bin, while larger apartment buildings can order special collection buckets for used batteries free of charge. Other states have laws regarding the proper disposal of specific types of batteries, such as vehicle batteries. Check your state’s battery recycling laws here. Just because you live in a state where it’s legal to toss your old batteries into the garbage, doesn’t mean you should. First of all, most batteries contain cobalt, nickel, manganese, and other heavy metals that can be potentially toxic, and keeping them out of landfills ensures that these metals don’t leech out and pollute drinking water or the natural environment. That’s pretty concerning, considering only 10% of the 5 billion batteries that are purchased in the United States each year are recycled. And, since the metals found inside batteries are considered valuable, recycling them minimizes the need to mine for raw materials. For example, some 50% of the world’s raw cobalt production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and has been linked to issues like armed conflict, human rights abuses, and harmful environmental practices. Mines in the "lithium triangle," a region rich in lithium reserves around the borders of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, may bring economic benefits to the state, but not without great social and environmental cost; the mining industry here regularly extracts large amounts of groundwater in an arid ecosystem where the only source of water for its local communities comes by way of mountain runoff. How to Recycle Batteries Different batteries are made using different mixtures of chemical elements and metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, nickel, and silver, while others may contain cobalt, lithium, and graphite that are treated as critical minerals by the United States Geological Survey. And although all of these materials can pose a threat to human health or the environment when improperly managed, critical minerals are considered additionally “economically and strategically important” to the United States since they have a high supply risk potential; as a result, they are of high value to the country’s recycling centers. The recycling process for these batteries involves a process called high-temperature metal reclamation where the batteries are sorted, cut, melted, and the metals extracted. With alkaline or zinc-carbon batteries, the materials are shredded to separate the paper, plastics, and metal. The materials are then either used to make new batteries or new products. It is important to check with your local recycling center, waste center, or county website to learn where to send or drop off your batteries. Since the materials inside batteries are considered valuable, places like Home Depot and Lowe’s may take them as well. Check the Earth 911 recycling locator to find a location near you that will recycle old batteries. Non-Rechargeable / Single Use Before 1996, single use batteries contained mercury and were therefore treated as hazardous waste, but the practice was phased out due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act. Today, the average, general purpose alkaline batteries (such as the AAA, AA, C, and D batteries that go in your remote control or child’s toy) are made of steel and a combination of zinc, manganese, potassium, graphite, paper, and plastic—all of which, in theory, are recyclable. Single use lithium batteries arrived on the scene about 40 years ago, becoming increasingly popular due to their lighter weight and higher, longer energy output. Same goes for those shiny disc-shaped zinc batteries that go in your watch or hearing aid. Rechargeable Unlike single use batteries, rechargeable batteries (which can be found in cellphone, laptops, appliances, digital cameras, and power tools) are rarely allowed in your household trash bin. Instead, recycle them through mail-in, drop-off, or take-back programs. These batteries are more likely to contain those valuable heavy metals that can be especially hazardous to the environment. Vehicle Batteries Like household batteries, vehicle batteries can be recycled through your car’s manufacturer or through similar drop off programs once they’ve reached the end of their lives. Though, since technology is changing all the time, vehicle batteries are becoming more and more efficient. In March 2021, a project funded by the Toyota Research Institute combined machine learning with knowledge gained from experimental physics to help understand the shortened lifetimes of fast-charging lithium-ion batteries. The goal is to develop a long-lived electric vehicle battery that can be charged in as little as 10 minutes. In May of the same year, Harvard researchers designed a stable, lithium-metal battery that could be charged and discharged at least 10,000 times, a technology that could increase the lifetime of electric vehicles without the need to replace the battery. According to a 2014 study in Sustainable Energy Technologies and Assessments, re-using electric vehicle (EV) batteries when they’ve reached the end of their lives could reduce CO2 emissions by 56% compared to using natural gas fuel for electrical power generation (similar to that of switching from a conventional vehicle to an EV). Where to Recycle Batteries For smaller operations and households, residents should call their local waste district to find out if their community has a collection program or do a quick search using Earth911’s Recycling resource. You can also find a mail-in recycling program that accepts batteries. Most of these programs will sell you a container to store used batteries that can be mailed when filled. If you run an office or a business that goes through a lot of batteries, it may be economical to purchase a Big Green Box for convenient recycling of batteries and other electronic devices. Battery Solutions is a similar company that provides battery recycling services for all of North America, and Call2Recycle is a non-profit that offers multiple resources and options. Or, check with local home improvement stores like Home Depot directly to find a drop off location for an even more convenient option. Once you’ve chosen how you’ll be recycling your batteries, take some time to prep them by placing a piece of non-conductive clear tape over the ends and storing them in a plastic bag or cardboard container that doesn’t conduct electricity in case of a spark. Keep in mind that if you’re mailing your batteries, the recycling facility might require additional safety steps.