The Truth about Recycling Batteries

Last updated on March 10, 2024.

Lego Stormtrooper surrounded by Duracell batteries, black background.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

Recently, we went to the Hazardous Waste facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to drop off used alkaline batteries (aka single-use, dry cell, or primary cell) that we’ve been saving for almost a year. However, hazardous waste would not accept them, informing us that “they were fine to put in the regular trash.” I’ve been taking them there since 2016, perhaps twice per year, and they always accepted them. Did they used to accept them, and now they don’t? Did they never accept them, and just put them in the landfill instead of properly informing me? I don’t know the answer but either way, I was shocked and disappointed.

I believed alkaline batteries were recyclable for many years. Years ago, I used to bring them to Batteries Plus (now Batteries+Bulbs) for recycling. But in the last decade, they stopped taking them. The store clerks told me several times that the recommendation has been to place them in the trash because they are “safe” for landfills. I’ve even been told that alkaline batteries are “good” for landfills because the alkalinity balances out the acidic environment of landfills.

Is any of this true?

No, it isn’t. Those are myths.

According to Consumer Reports: “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.”1

The argument is that mercury, a highly toxic metal, is no longer a threat. Mercury content in batteries has decreased significantly since the passage of the 1996 Battery Act, which also changed their classification from hazardous waste to non-toxic or non-hazardous.2 Some argue that naturally occurring metals in batteries pose no threat to the environment.

But why take the chance while the experts argue it out? Any single-use disposable item is now a threat anyway because of the sheer volume of items we throw away.

Illustrated cartoon of a dead, leaking battery.
Image by acunha1973 on Pixabay.

So can alkaline batteries be recycled?

Technically, yes. But practically, no.

While the recycling of alkaline batteries does exist, they are more expensive to process and they don’t contain valuable materials like other types of batteries do. Thus there is no financial incentive to recycle them, so they are only recycled when mandated by law.

Are there laws about battery disposal/recycling?

In some places, yes. More than twenty states have laws about battery disposal. But most are concerned with rechargeable type batteries, which are much more recyclable. In Tennessee, there are no battery recycling requirements. California has the most strict laws – not surprising since California is always in the lead when it comes to laws regarding unsafe, toxic, and dangerous products.

A few states require some retailers to collect batteries for recycling. Others require that battery manufacturers fund or organize battery collection programs.3 Making the manufacturers responsible is one solution. This model is called Extended Producer Responsibility.

Variety of used batteries on a white background.
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

What do the manufacturers recommend?

I checked with three large battery manufacturers for their recommendations on alkaline battery disposal. Overall, I was displeased.

Duracell: “Our alkaline batteries are composed primarily of common metals—steel, zinc, and manganese—and do not pose a health or environmental risk during normal use or disposal…Therefore, alkaline batteries can be safely disposed of with normal household waste, everywhere but California.”4 They encourage customers to contact the local government for disposal options in their area.

Vermont passed a law that implements Extended Producer Responsibility. A state law passed in 2016 law that requires primary battery producers, such as Duracell, to fund a free statewide collection and recycling program. Yay for Vermont!

Energizer contends that “unless you live in California, you’ve been tossing non-rechargeable batteries safely in the trash for at least 19 years.”5 Well, if it’s not safe in California, it’s probably not safe anywhere. Toxins don’t change by crossing a border.

Energizer shucks responsibility on the website. They also take credit for an effort to which they did not contribute. “Since its inception in 1994, Call2Recycle has recycled over 100 million pounds of used rechargeable batteries. This national mindset to recycle has enabled Energizer® to pioneer technology that reuses battery material to create new batteries. So already we’re helping to make a difference.”6 No, they’re not. If these statements were true, they’d take responsibility for the afterlife of disposable batteries.

Rayovac: “Batteries can be disposed of with normal household waste in most US states.”7 They, too, refer consumers to Call2Recycle. They offer information on their commitment to sustainable production but offer no real solutions for disposable alkaline batteries.

Photo of AA Energizer brand batteries, white background.
Image by Photoshot from Pixabay.

Where can you recycle batteries?

Call2Recycle is a good resource for recycling in general. The latter, a leading battery stewardship program, has collection sites for batteries in different parts of the nation. There are no battery recycling laws in Tennessee, Georgia, or Alabama. But maybe your state does have a battery recycling law. Check out this map from Call2Recycle:

Graphic of the U.S., showing states by color for battery recycling laws.
Image courtesy of call2recycle.org.

There are a few places you can pay to recycle alkaline batteries, but it’s very costly for us as consumers:

        • TerraCycle offers alkaline battery recycling buckets starting at $39 and up to $151.
        • Call2Recycle sells a box for $68 for battery recycling and other items.
        • BigGreenBox also sells one for $71.95.

Solutions

There are several solutions at the consumer level that we can implement.

    • Stop buying alkaline or single-use disposable batteries, and switch to rechargeable batteries. They are reusable and much more recyclable! This is what I am planning to do effective immediately. I read reviews on rechargeable batteries and decided to order a Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable battery set. I’ll update this article with a review of them once I’ve received and tested them.

      Image of Panasonic eneloop Power Pack.
      Panasonic Eneloop Power Pack.
    • Reduce your overall dependence on batteries. I know this is not always feasible, especially with children’s toys and remote controls, but opt for plugging in whenever possible. You can also buy smarter in the future, purchasing items that don’t require alkaline batteries.
    • Recycle the ones you can through one of the above-mentioned services, or by checking Call2Recycle’s website for free battery recycling near you. (As of March 2024, there are still no options offered in my area.)
    • Write to the battery manufacturers and request that they do more to improve recycling and awareness about disposal. This probably won’t do much, but it’s worth a try!
Close up photo of batteries.
Photo by Hilary Halliwell from Pexels.

I hope this was helpful, and thank you for reading! Leave me a comment or question below! Keep trying to be the change, and please share and subscribe!

 

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