Yes, You Need to Recycle Your Old Batteries
Follow this handy guide to do right by the environment—and the law
Batteries are a routine part of modern life, but despite their ubiquity, it’s not always clear what to do when they get used up or stop holding a charge. You might see conflicting information online, 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, PhD, Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer.
Batteries Aren't Created Equal, but Recycle Them All Anyway
“It’s not necessary for consumers to understand every type of battery,” Raudys says. “The reality is they’re all recyclable. If it’s a battery, just recycle it and let us take care of sorting them and making sure they get dealt with in the right way.”
It’s that simple—however, the consequences of improper disposal can be a much bigger deal, depending on the battery. There are significant differences among the batteries that run a TV remote, that power your car’s starter, and everything in between.
Car batteries, rechargeable batteries (including AA, 9-volt, the one in the back of your cell phone, and the like), and even button cell watch batteries contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Recycling batteries like these is often required by law. By comparison, primary batteries—those designed to be used once, such as disposable alkaline AA batteries—aren’t quite as dangerous. Mercury used to be a typical ingredient in primary batteries, but thanks to regulations in the 1990s, battery manufacturers essentially stopped using the hazardous element.
Today’s primary batteries are relatively benign, but that doesn’t mean you should just throw them away. It’s easy to get them confused with more sensitive batteries—and even alkaline batteries have recoverable materials.
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 might 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 on to the original packing and reuse it to house the spent batteries. That’s what he does. “You can use a permanent marker to mark the old batteries so you don’t get them confused with the new ones,” he says.
When it’s time to get rid of the batteries, start by checking local ordinances. A few cities and towns will recycle any batteries for you if you just leave them in a plastic bag on top of your trashcan.
About half of states have laws mandating specific disposal methods for consumers. California is the most strict, where it’s illegal to throw a single-use battery in the trash. 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 Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Staples have electronics recycling programs that accept batteries and other e-waste at stores across the country as well. Some Best Buy locations take batteries, too.
Earth911 and Call2Recycle have tools to help locate recycling drop-off points, allowing you to search for collections by battery type. Call2Recycle says 86 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of one of its drop-off locations.
Before you head to a collection site, though, check to see if 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. That’s because the materials in alkaline batteries aren’t as valuable, while alkalines are also more expensive to process.
When all else fails (and if you’re particularly committed), Call2Recycle sells special boxes for batteries and some e-waste that you can ship back to them. You could even set one up in your local community and start your own mini program.
“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.