Can I recycle old batteries?
-Kristen L., Allentown, PA
Technically, most batteries you run across are recyclable. But keep in mind that disposal options are different depending on the battery type.
Alkaline batteries (single-use batteries) are your archetypical batteries that power everything from remote controls to kids’ toys. They come in different sizes, like AA or AAA, and once they run out of power, they have to be replaced. These days, single-use batteries no longer contain mercury and are considered so benign that many cities advise residents to throw them in the trash (although it is illegal for California residents to throw any kind of battery in the trash).
Unfortunately, there are very few alkaline battery recycling programs. Some cities do accept alkaline batteries for disposal through household hazardous waste programs. Check with your local public works department to see if there is a year-round drop-off location for household hazardous waste, or if your community holds collection events throughout the year. Another option is to recycle them through a mail-in program.
Rechargeable batteries, the ones that look just like alkaline batteries, can be used over and over again before permanently losing their charge. Common kinds include nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH). They are a more sustainable option than single-use batteries for the obvious reason that they can be reused many times before disposing of them. There is one environmental caveat: their rechargeable properties come from heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and nickel. That means they pose a serious environmental contamination threat if not properly disposed of.
Rechargeable batteries should never be put in the trash (in fact, it’s illegal to do so in many states), where they will eventually end up in a landfill, leaking heavy metals into the soil and groundwater. Fortunately, the potential harm is easily thwarted by recycling. Call2Recycle, a national battery collection program funded by battery manufacturers, has placed drop-boxes in more than 30,000 locations in North America. That makes recycling as easy as dropping them off the next time you’re out shopping.