Anything that makes sounds, lights up or turns on without being plugged in contains a battery. Batteries are essential for today’s “unplugged” lifestyle, but they also contain toxic metals, such as lead, cadmium and lithium that are released into the environment when disposed or recycled the wrong way.
Some types of batteries, especially lithium, or Li-ion, also hold a small amount of charge, called a “residual” charge, after they are no longer strong enough to run a camera, toy or other product. The residual charge or energy is released as heat or fire if batteries are damaged or punctured. Batteries placed in the garbage or curbside recycling bin may be damaged in transit or by equipment at facilities that are designed only for recycling paper, plastic, glass and metal.
The first thing to know is that batteries placed in your curbside bins won’t be recycled. They can’t be picked out by the equipment designed to crush and sort large volumes of paper, glass and plastic.
Batteries that are damaged by a compactor truck or recycling facility equipment may start all of the recyclables on fire! Fires caused by lithium and other batteries have resulted in the damage or complete destruction of several recycling facilities in Minnesota.
You can help ensure your batteries will be safely recycled if you take them to a Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) facility, or to a store that collects batteries for recycling. Follow these steps:
Step 1: Collect and sort your batteries by type
- Use gloves: If batteries have a white or rusty colored powder on the terminals, handle them with latex or nitrile gloves, since this powder can burn your skin.
- Sort out all batteries with the word “Alkaline or Alcaline”, “General Use” or “Carbon Zinc” on the label. Place them in a container or bag. These batteries may be placed in the garbage, since the recyclable content is low and they are not a fire hazard. Very few HHW and retail sites collect these batteries for recycling, contact them ahead of time to find out (see Step 3).
- Some battery manufacturers no longer put the word “alkaline” on the label, but it is generally on the packaging. If you are unsure, keep them separate from other alkalines.
- For all non-alkaline batteries and items than contain non-removable batteries complete Step 2.
Please note: It is illegal to place rechargeable batteries in the garbage.
Step 2: Tape all battery terminals
- ALL battery types (except alkaline) need to have the ends or terminals taped. These are generally labeled with a + or -. This prevents them from linking together to generate heat or fire. The best tape to use is black electrical or duct tape. Don’t use transparent gift wrap tape, since it doesn’t stick well.
- Tape all button or coin shaped batteries and all lithium batteries whether rechargeable or single-use.
- After you tape your batteries, place them in a container until you take them to a retail or HHW recycling facility. The container should not be “airtight”.
All batteries, used or unused, should be kept out of the reach of children since they are a choking hazard.
Step 3: Find a battery recycler
Find contact information for your County HHW or Solid Waste Program. If the county does not collect batteries, they will likely know the closest facility that does.
Use the Call2Recycle (C2R) recycling site locator. C2R is an organization supported by manufactures to provide rechargeable battery recycling for free to households. Just enter your zip code to find the closest collection site.
Batteries Plus Bulbs. These stores do not have a recycling site locator, but they accept rechargeable batteries and all lithium single-use batteries, including coins.
Check with the store where you purchased your batteries. Some stores, such as Best Buy, Harbor Freight, IKEA or other electronics and hardware stores will accept used batteries for recycling.
Remember to tape them before dropping them off!
Swollen or damaged batteries
- Batteries that are damaged, become wet, or are stored in a device for a long period of time without use may rupture. When this happens, a clear liquid, which dries to a white or rusty colored powder will be on the battery and possibly in the device. Use gloves: place alkaline batteries in the garbage and tape all others.
- Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries may swell up if damaged. The swelling occurs when the cells inside the battery casing rupture and react, generating heat and gas. Swollen batteries and the devices containing them should not be used due to the high risk of fire or a release of toxic gases. Carefully remove the battery, tape the terminals and take these to your nearest battery recycler as soon as you can. If you cannot remove the battery from the device, take the entire device to your HHW program for safe management. Tell retail or HHW staff you have a damaged battery, so they can put it into a specially designed shipping box.
- If you must store the battery at home, put it in an open top metal, ceramic or glass container and keep it away from heat sources, combustible materials like paper, and children.
Lead acid batteries are used for starting-lighting-ignition and backup power in any type of on or off-road motor vehicle, emergency lighting, and other products. Car and truck vehicle batteries contain about 18 pounds of lead and about one gallon of corrosive, lead-contaminated sulfuric acid.
It is against state law to discard lead acid batteries in the trash.
Retailers must accept up to five lead acid batteries per day free of charge from an individual [or ‘from consumers’]. Retailers charge at least $10 if your old battery is not returned within 30 days of purchasing a new battery.
Which batteries are best?
The tool, toy or electronic product generally includes information that specifies which battery type should be used to power a device. Use the type and size specified.
For products that use or include AA, AAA, C, D single use batteries, there is generally a rechargeable option that can safely be used. Rechargeable batteries can be recharged hundreds of times before they no longer hold a strong charge and can be recycled. The initial cost may be higher than single use batteries, but they are environmentally superior due to savings on raw materials, including packaging and the energy to produce and ship batteries. The exception may be a camera or other device where the manufacturer specifies the use of a lithium battery. This is generally the case for electronics that require a higher energy output than can be delivered by an alkaline or other type of rechargeable battery.
Lithium batteries are the most “energy dense” type of battery. This means they can be smaller and lighter and still hold as much or more of a charge than other battery types. As a single use or other type of rechargeable are smaller and lighter were first only available as rechargeable batteries. Now they are sold in AA, AAA and C sizes. They are more expensive, because they hold more energy and last longer. The higher cost generally evens out because they last longer. However, these are also the type that need to be taped and brought to your HHW facility or a store so that they are safely recycled.
Reminder: Do not place any batteries in your recycling bin! Is it not safe and they won’t be recycled.