Batteries are everywhere. Think of your electronics, like your mobile phone or computer. Or your car, TV remote, and even children’s toys. Whether we realize it or not, batteries are powering various sectors of our lives. But the question is: How can we dispose of single-use batteries when they die?
Most of us know batteries shouldn’t be thrown in the trash. Thus, many of us have avoided discarding batteries altogether, letting them accumulate in our garages and offices. And while we’re keeping batteries out of landfills, we’re still not getting rid of them the way we need to.
In this guide on battery recycling, we explain why batteries don’t belong in the trash and share important guidelines on how to dispose of batteries responsibly. Plus, we’ll even show you some sustainable swaps for typical single-use batteries that can solve the issue altogether.
Why Disposable Batteries Don’t Belong in the Trash
Single-use, “disposable” batteries can be used to power many portable electronic devices and even larger appliances. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), batteries contain various mixtures of chemical elements designed to meet power and performance needs. Specifically, batteries can contain metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, silver, and nickel or minerals including cobalt, lithium, and graphite.
To learn more about the dangers of improper battery disposal, we spoke to Lauren Cutlip, business development and outreach manager at Recycling & Disposal Solutions of Virginia. Cutlip says batteries contain toxic chemicals that can negatively impact recycling facilities and the environment. Therefore, batteries shouldn’t be thrown away or recycled like other household waste, like paper, plastic, or aluminum.
“There are toxic chemicals in batteries that may corrode or otherwise leak out into the disposal stream, into landfills,” Cutlip says. “This ultimately puts natural resources at risk of contamination if not properly disposed of.”
If used batteries end up in a landfill, they can release pollutants into the environment. This could contaminate groundwater, damage ecosystems, and potentially end up in the food chain.
Plus, if batteries are sent to recycling facilities, machines may not pick up on battery waste in the recycling process. If this happens, the batteries can spark and cause a number of dangerous outcomes, putting workers at risk.
“An extreme danger presented by batteries considered hazardous waste is that they’re explosive and can start a fire if dropped, crushed, or punctured at the right level of force,” Cutlip says. “In recycling facilities, there’s heavy operating equipment used to load materials into the sorting machinery that can very easily miss a lithium battery in the material mix and instantly cause these types of reactions unintentionally.”
So, if we can’t recycle batteries the way we’d recycle other household waste, what do we do?
How to Recycle Batteries and Dispose of Them Correctly
Batteries can be recycled. But it’s not common for batteries and other e-waste to get picked up with curbside recycling.
“Similar to plastic bags, scrap metal, and other materials not typically included in a single stream recycling program, there is a misconception that just because it can be recycled in some form—for example, by bringing it to a designated collection location—that it can be recycled with household materials like bottles, cans, and paper,” Cutlip says.
The EPA recommends different disposal methods for different types of batteries. Alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries—aka your everyday batteries used in alarm clocks and flashlights—should be dropped off with sources that specifically recycle batteries.
“Batteries are one of the special materials that require a designated drop-off at a source that specifically collects these items for proper disposal or recycling,” Cutlip says. “Citizens should always look up the local source for battery drop off, for example by checking their city’s website for more information.”
For button-cell (coin-like) batteries and single-use lithium batteries, the EPA says to avoid putting them in the trash or municipal recycling bins. Again, consumers should find a recycling location that specializes in battery recycling.
While some Office Depot and Best Buy locations accept batteries for recycling, these special drop-off recycling locations may not be accessible to everyone. That’s exactly how our battery waste accumulates.
Here’s an alternative to disposable batteries that’ll help you keep toxic waste out of landfills.
The Simple Way to Recycle Batteries
If you prefer using single-use batteries or if your devices require them, there’s a solution that makes battery recycling a breeze.
Better Battery Co. makes certified carbon-neutral batteries that can be delivered right to your door. And when the batteries are used, you can ship them back to the company to be recycled for free. Aka instead of letting them pile up at home, worrying about sending toxic waste to landfills, or trying to find a drop-off location, you have a simple and stress-free solution.
Another option is using rechargeable batteries. “They’re not single-use—you can just recharge them once they run out of juice,” says Laura Wittig, CEO and founder of Brightly. But while you’re cutting back on single-use batteries, she says you do run into the same situation at the end of their life. Even rechargeable batteries can’t last forever and need to be responsibly disposed of eventually.
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