Battery Recycling: Should You Throw Them Out?
What should you do with that junk drawer full of dead batteries? The answer may surprise you!
Chances are that the batteries in that drawer or old cardboard box are mostly non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. Although alkaline batteries are by far the most common non-rechargeable battery, they do come in three types: alkaline, zinc chloride/carbon zinc, and lithium.
The most common non-rechargeable battery, alkalines are more powerful than Carbon Zinc or Zinc Chloride batteries and are available in all standard sizes: AA, AAA, 9V, C, and D. Alkalines gradually lose their voltage over time instead of experiencing the sudden drop in voltage you often see in rechargeable batteries. Alkalines may not work well in high drain devices like digital cameras or camcorders - this is where more expensive lithuim batteries shine. If used infrequently or not at all, alkalines will sometimes leak, causing damage to your device. If you store a device just for emergency use, a lithium battery is safer.
CARBON ZINC AND ZINC CHLORIDE
Zinc–carbon batteries were the first commercial dry batteries and the first mass produced small scale source of electrical energy. They're still sometimes used in low-drain or intermittent-use devices such as remote controls, flashlights, clocks or transistor radios. These are really cheap, and for most applications, alkalines are a better choice.
The newer zinc-chloride cell, frequently referred to as a heavy-duty, extra-heavy-duty, or even super-heavy-duty battery, is an improvement on the original zinc–carbon cell but it's not really 'heavy duty' at all, because it offers just a fraction of the output of an alkaline battery.
Lithium batteries are the most costly type of non-rechargeable battery, but they supply more energy than alkaline batteries and are lighter weight, they perform well in extreme weather environments, and have a very long shelf life even compared to alkaline batteries which often last
for 5 to 7 years. They also perform very well in high drain devices like digital cameras, and are the best choice for smart home devices, outdoor surveillance systems, handheld games, and other high-tech and/or high-drain devices. For battery-operated toys, however, alkalines are definitely a better choice - a lithium battery will probably outlast the toy!
SHOULD NONRECHARGEABLE BATTERIES BE RECYCLED?
First, some background on what's actually in (or not in) non-rechargeable batteries. In the United States, the use of mercury in consumer batteries has declined sharply. Today, the only types of batteries in the U.S. that contain mercury are button cell batteries and mercuric oxide batteries, which are used in some medical devices and by the military and are not available to the public.
The Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996 prohibits the use of mercury in all other types of batteries. With the passage of this act, mercury-free alkaline batteries became the national standard for most applications.
Why does this matter? Because the metals and chemicals in all types of non-rechargeable batteries (except button cells) do not pose a health or environmental risk during normal use or disposal, they can be safely disposed of in the trash. You probably shouldn't eat them, but they're relatively harmless otherwise!
The heavy metals that are toxic are usually the ones that are also very valuable and thus highly coveted for recycling - but that's not the case for the materials inside non-rechargeable batteries. Used alkaline batteries are pretty worthless, economically speaking. Since it costs more to recycle the battery than it does to sell the metals inside of it, they are rarely recycled anymore. And that includes your municipal drop off center - they're throwing them out, not recycling them (that is NOT the case with other types of batteries, as button cells, lead acid, and Li-Ion batteries really ARE hazardous waste). Drop-off centers collect materials for recycling processors who are in the business of SELLING materials that manufacturers want, not paying out funds for recycling. And there's no money in recycling non-rechargeable batteries. (If you are convinced your municipality is actually recycling them because you were told that they do, I'd love to hear about it and be proven wrong!)
If you're really, really hung up on not throwing them out, the only way to ensure your non-rechargeable batteries are ACTUALLY recycled is to pay for it yourself. And it usually isn't cheap. What you should NEVER do, no matter where you live, is put ANY kind of battery in your curbside bin.
We take them in our recycling program for an additional fee, but non-rechargeable battery recycling is not a part of our $5 per month Recycling Club subscription. It's just too costly to include them.
Unless you live in California. Because, of course it's different in California. Unlike other states who believe it is okay to place old alkaline batteries in the normal trash bin, California law declares that ALL batteries are hazardous waste. You MUST take them to a local battery recycling facility or collection location. Maybe they're actually getting recycled. But probably not.
WHY WOULD MUNICIPALITIES HAVE NON-RECHARGEABLE BATTERY DROP-OFF IF THEY'RE JUST THROWING THEM OUT?
Some cities exclude non-rechargeable batteries from their drop-offs. Other say to bring ALL batteries in. Why? Oftentimes, the more information you give people, the more confused they get. 'Drop all batteries off here' is a lot easier to remember than 'Only bring this, that, and the other kind of battery, but not those, because we can't make any money from recycling them and we don't have the money to pay for recycling them.' And a 'bring them all in' policy also helps prevent batteries that actually ARE hazardous from ending up in the trash or in curbside bins, where they can leak and cause chemical burns or even explode.
WHAT KINDS OF BATTERIES SHOULD NEVER BE THROWN IN THE TRASH?
Pretty much any battery that isn't a non-rechargeable battery, including button cells, cell phone batteries and other lithium ion batteries (also used in electric vehicles, laptops, and other personal tech devices). We take them in our recycling program (EXCEPT lead-acid batteries), and you can also bring them to other retailers that accept batteries such as Best Buy, Home Depot, and Staples. No retailers accept non-rechargeable batteries for free, however - except in California. You may also be able to take them to your municipal drop-off center or a hazardous waste drop-off event in your city.
Lead-acid batteries Since lead-acid batteries are so dangerous, states have made it easy to get them to recyclers. Stores that sell new lead-acid batteries should take the old one and recycle it for you (nearly every state has a law that requires them to do so). Places that sell car supplies, such as Napa Auto Parts, Autozone and Firestore Complete Auto Care all offer recycling programs.
Lead-acid batteries are used in automobiles, but also in emergency lighting, sump pumps in case of power failure, golf carts, and other applications.