Should Batteries Be Tossed or Recycled?

Newer batteries contain less mercury than older types

full frame image of the tops of batteries
Rachel Husband/Getty Images

Today’s common household batteries—those ubiquitous AAs, AAAs, Cs, Ds and 9-volts from Duracell, Energizer, and others—are not thought to pose as great a threat to properly equipped modern landfills as they used to because they contain much less mercury than their predecessors. As a result, most municipalities now recommend simply throwing such batteries away with your trash. Common household batteries are also called alkaline batteries; the chemical type is important in choosing proper disposal options.

Battery Disposal or Recycling?

Nevertheless, environmentally concerned consumers might feel better recycling such batteries anyway, as they still do contain trace amounts of mercury and other potentially toxic stuff. Some municipalities will accept these batteries (as well as older, more toxic ones) at household hazardous waste facilities, from which they will most likely be sent elsewhere to be processed and recycled as components in new batteries, or incinerated in a dedicated hazardous waste processing facility.

How to Recycle Batteries

Other options abound, such as the mail-order service, Battery Solutions, which will recycle your spent batteries at a low cost, calculated by the pound. Meanwhile, the national chain, Batteries Plus, is happy to take back disposable batteries for recycling at any of its 255 retail stores coast-to-coast.

Older Batteries Should Always Be Recycled

Consumers should note that any old batteries they may find buried in their closets that were made before 1997—when Congress mandated a widespread mercury phase-out in batteries of all types—should most surely be recycled and not discarded with the trash, as they may contain as much as 10 times the mercury of newer versions.Check with your municipality, they may have a program for this type of waste, such as a yearly hazardous waste drop off day.

Lithium batteries, these small, round ones used for hearing aids, watches, and car key fobs, are toxic and should not be thrown in the trash. Treat them like you would other household hazardous waste.

Car batteries are recyclable, and in fact are quite valuable. Auto part stores will gladly take them back, and so will many residential waste transfer stations.

 

The Problem of Rechargeable Batteries

Perhaps of greater concern nowadays is what’s happening to spent rechargeable batteries from cell phones, laptops, and other portable electronic equipment. Such items contain potentially toxic heavy metals sealed up inside, and if thrown out with the regular garbage can jeopardize the environmental integrity of both landfills and incinerator emissions. Luckily, the battery industry sponsors the operations of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), which facilitates the collection of used rechargeable batteries collected in an industry-wide “take back” program for recycling. Your big-box hardware store chain (like Home Depot and Lowes) likely has a booth where you can drop off rechargeable batteries for recycling.

Additional Battery Recycling Options

Consumers can help by limiting their electronics purchases to items that carry the RBRC logo on their packaging. Furthermore, they can find out where to drop off old rechargeable batteries (and even old cell phones) by checking RBRC’s website. Also, many electronics stores will take back rechargeable batteries and deliver them to RBRC free-of-charge - check with your favorite retailer. RBRC then processes the batteries via a thermal recovery technology that reclaims metals such as nickel, iron, cadmium, lead and cobalt, repurposing them for use in new batteries.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry