Yes, You Need to Recycle Your Old Batteries

Batteries are a routine part of modern life, but despite their ubiquity, it’s not always clear what to do with them when they get used up or stop holding a charge. You may have come across conflicting information, but according to experts, the advice is simple: When you’re done with a battery, you should recycle it.

“Whether it’s your standard alkaline AA battery, a rechargeable cell phone battery, or the battery from your car, you should treat it with care by using safe storage and disposal methods,” says James Dickerson, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer.

Most batteries—regardless of type—contain toxic chemicals. Think cadmium, lead, lithium, or sulfuric acid. If your old batteries end up in a landfill, pollutants like these can leak out into the environment and contaminate groundwater, damage fragile ecosystems, and even make their way into the food chain.

If batteries aren’t disposed of properly, there’s also a possibility they could short circuit, overheat, and cause a fire. And depending on where you live and the battery in question, it may be illegal to put one in the trash altogether.

The good news, according to Carl Smith, CEO and president of Call2Recycle, a leading battery stewardship program, is that most Americans live within a short drive of a collection point that will take the batteries that post the greatest risk.

Earth Day is a great opportunity to reflect on your environmental footprint and take steps to build new habits that will lessen your impact throughout the year. Adding batteries to the list of products you recycle is a great way to do that.

Here’s what you need to know.
Not All Batteries Are Created Equal
There are big differences among the batteries that run a TV remote, the one that powers your car’s starter, and everything in between.

Car batteries, rechargeable batteries (including the one in the back of your cell phone, AAs, 9-volts, and the like), and even button cell watch batteries contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Recycling batteries like these ensures that the internal materials are handled with care, lessens the need for mining, and is often required by law.

By comparison, primary batteries—those designed to be used once, such as disposable alkaline AAs—aren’t quite as dangerous. They used to contain mercury quite often, but battery manufacturers essentially stopped using the element after congress stepped in to regulate the industry in the 1990s.

“Today, primary batteries are rather benign chemically,” Smith says, but that doesn’t mean you should just throw them away. A primary battery’s metal casing can be recovered and reused, and while the chemicals inside may be less toxic than those in a lead-acid car battery, that doesn’t mean they’re safe or good for the environment.

“No matter what kind of battery you’re dealing with, our advice is that you should try and recycle it,” Smith says.

Before You Recycle
When you’re collecting and storing old batteries for recycling, you should take a few precautions.

“What you shouldn’t do is take your batteries and toss them haphazardly into a bag, or store them in a metal container,” CR’s Dickerson says.

Old batteries may not generate enough energy to power a device, but they could still spark a fire if they’re not handled carefully. Store them in a secure container that keeps them lined up side-by-side, so the contact points can’t touch each other or brush up against anything that’s metallic or conductive.

If you want to store your batteries with the care of a scientist, Dickerson says, one of the safest options is to hold onto the original packing and reuse it to house the spent batteries. “You can use a permanent marker to mark the old batteries so you don’t get them confused with the new ones,” he explains.

When it’s time to get rid of the batteries, start by checking local ordinances.

Twenty-two states have laws that mandate specific disposal methods for consumers. California is the most strict. It’s the only state where it’s illegal to throw a single-use battery in the trash. But many others require consumers to recycle rechargeable batteries.

For up-to-date information on the laws in your state, consult this map created by Call2Recycle.

How to Find a Drop-Off Point
The website for your local government is a great place to start. Many municipalities host collection events for hazardous waste and electronics. Some also have permanent drop-off facilities.

A few states—including New York and Minnesota—require retailers that sell certain batteries to collect them for recycling. Others insist that battery manufacturers fund or organize battery collection programs. Businesses including Best Buy, Lowe’s, and Staples have electronics recycling programs that accept batteries and other e-waste at stores across the country as well.

A clickable map at TIA E-cycling Central lists recycling events by state, along with other local recycling options. Earth911 and Call2Recycle also have a tool to help locate recycling drop-off points, allowing you to search for collections by battery type.

Before you head to a collection site, though, make sure the organizers will accept the kind of battery you want to recycle.

You shouldn’t have a hard time finding a place to recycle rechargeable batteries or car batteries. Button cell batteries are often easy to get rid of, too, and some manufacturers offer mail-in recycling programs.

In some parts of the country, though, it may be difficult to recycle single-use alkaline batteries. While batteries often contain valuable materials, that isn’t the case for alkalines. They’re more expensive to process, and many recyclers won’t accept them, which can make things more difficult for consumers who want to be responsible stewards for their waste.

“If you can recycle your alkaline batteries, you should,” Dickerson says. “But if you’ve exhausted all your options, and there’s nowhere nearby to take them, putting them in the garbage is the last resort.”

Before you throw them in the trash, though, stick a piece of tape over the contacts. That will lower the risk of fires. Disposing of them in the original packing helps, too.