What can we do with dead batteries?

Dead batteries

Have you stopped to think that the calls to recycle more don’t mention battery recycling? You can’t just put dead batteries out with the bottles, cans, and wastepaper. 

It’s illegal to put them in the trash in California. I used to think it was illegal everywhere till a friend of mine told me otherwise—meaning specifically household alkaline batteries. He’s a retired Regulatory Affairs Manager, so he should know. Legal or not, it’s a bad idea. 

The button battery in your watch, the dry cell in your TV remote, and the lead-acid battery in your car all work on the same principle. They have metal electrodes and some kind of electrolyte. Eventually, they stop working. 

If you’ve ever seen a flashlight battery that’s gotten wet, you know it’s dangerous to touch it. It can cause severe burns. Not long ago, people would toss dead batteries in the trash. No one thought anything about it. And, of course, damp conditions in the landfill would cause them to corrode if they hadn’t already.

Now, people still discard dead batteries thoughtlessly, but more of us have become concerned. Battery recycling is the obvious solution, but much easier said than done.

Recycling batteries for cars and other vehicles

Gasoline-powered cars need lead-acid batteries. When you need a new battery, your mechanic or parts store will recycle the old one. Since nearly 100% of them get recycled, lead-acid batteries have the highest recycling rate of anything in the US. 

Electric vehicles run on lithium-ion batteries. Again, when they no longer supply enough power to operate the vehicle, the mechanic who installs the new one will take the old one for recycling. Or reuse. Even after they can’t run a car, they can still be recharged enough for other uses. 

Unless you have a job that deals with car batteries all the time, you recycle them without having to think about it. But you handle household batteries all the time. Recycling them means you must take them to some kind of drop-off center.

Recycling alkaline batteries

The old-fashioned alkaline batteries may be the least dangerous to discard. The zinc and manganese in alkaline batteries occur naturally in soil. Manufacturers discontinued using mercury in them in the 1990s. Not that these metals are harmless, but they don’t account for the worst environmental problems.

But the electrolyte? It’s either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. They’re both caustic alkalis, but not technically a hazardous waste:

According to the legal definition, hazardous wastes exhibit one or more of these four characteristic; ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. Federal regulations require releases of hazardous materials be reported to the public if the amount exceeds a particular amount. For potassium hydroxide, it’s 1000 pounds. 

All the alkaline batteries in an entire day’s trash collection probably won’t reach that threshold. And that’s why it’s not illegal to put them in the trash. But no one has built a landfill lining yet that doesn’t leak. Leachate from landfills pollutes soil and groundwater. And that’s why throwing dead batteries in the trash is a bad idea even if it’s legal.

It’s a good thing alkaline batteries are not technically hazardous wastes, because few places accept single-use batteries for recycling. They have small amounts of iron, zinc, and manganese. Until recently, no one thought such amounts were sufficiently valuable to make recycling alkaline batteries cost-effective. 

I would recommend taking dead alkaline batteries to a household hazardous waste collection center instead of putting them in the trash.

Recycling rechargeable batteries 

Rechargeable batteries in charger
via Flickr

The rechargeable batteries in your various gadgets mostly use one of four battery chemistries:

  • Nickel cadmium
  • Nickel metal hydride
  • Lithium-ion
  • Lithium on polymer

Cadmium is especially toxic. Rechargeable batteries contain other metals not in their names, including cobalt. These metals pollute soil and groundwater more than zinc and manganese do. What’s more, when you can’t recharge them anymore, they still have some spark in them. Those dead batteries can start a fire if they come in contact with each other or something else that conducts electricity. 

Do not put rechargeable batteries in the trash. For one thing, it’s more likely to be illegal that putting alkaline batteries there. For another, the metals cause more environmental damage.

On the other hand, it makes sense to accumulate a lot of them before taking them anywhere for recycling. So take some precautions:

  • You can put dead rechargeable batteries back in the package they came from. Mark them with a permanent marker so you can tell the good batteries from spent ones.
  • Less complicated, put tape on the business ends. It doesn’t conduct electricity. You can put button batteries on a single long piece of tape with the same electrode (positive or negative) touching the tape.
  • Be sure not to store them near heat sources or anything wet,  conductive, or flammable. 
  • Store them in a cardboard box or something else that is not conductive.
  • Keep them out of the reach of children.

How to find a place to recycle dead batteries

Since you can’t recycle dead batteries with the rest of your recycling, you must take them somewhere. Fortunately, it’s not hard to find a place. 

Use Earth 911’s Where to Recycle tool. This link already has “batteries” in the search box. Just enter your ZIP code in the other box. Of course, you can replace what’s in the search box to find where to recycle anything else you can think of. 

Call2Recycle, a company that specializes in consumer battery recycling, also links to drop-off centers all over the country. Either site will identify the relatively few places that accept dead alkaline batteries.

These sites’ listings include stores from several well-known nationwide chains, such as

  • Best Buy
  • Staples
  • Home Depot
  • Lowes

It may be more convenient to ask about rechargeable battery recycling when you visit one. 

How and why to recycle rechargeable batteries / Michelle Barsukov, Quill.com. January 19, 2017
Yes, you need to recycle your old batteries / Thomas Germain, Consumer Reports. April 20, 2019

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