How to Recycle Batteries

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 06, 2023

Many everyday objects run on batteries. You can find batteries in your car, laptop, cell phone, watch, and more. Eventually, these batteries reach the end of their lives and you have to get rid of them. But can you recycle them?

You can recycle your batteries, and you should. Batteries contain heavy metals that are dangerous if they get in the environment, but these metals can often be reused for something else. However, most batteries can’t go in your curbside recycling bin. Below, learn more about the importance of recycling batteries and how to find a recycling location near you.

What Are Batteries Made Of?

There are many types of batteries, but most batteries used in everyday life are made up of heavy metals. Most car batteries also contain a liquid solution. The specific types of heavy metals will vary depending on the battery.

Dry-cell batteries. Dry-cell batteries are the small, everyday batteries found in things like flashlights and remote controls. There are a few different types of these, each made of a different heavy metal.

  • Alkaline batteries are the standard batteries that come in sizes like AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt. These batteries are made from forms of manganese, potassium, and zinc.
  • Zinc-carbon batteries come in the same sizes as alkaline batteries, but are less common. They’re made from forms of zinc, carbon, manganese, and sometimes ammonia, which is a mix of nitrogen and hydrogen.
  • Button batteries. Button batteries are the small, round batteries found in smaller items like watches. They’re often made of cadmium, lithium, mercury, and silver, though they can also be made from other heavy metals.

Rechargeable dry-cell batteries. Rechargeable dry-cell batteries may come in sizes like AA or AAA, but they’re also what you find in your cell phone or laptop.

  • Nickel-Cadmium (NICad) batteries. These aren’t used much anymore, but they’re the type of battery that used to be in cell phones before they were replaced with lithium-ion batteries. As their name suggests, these batteries are made from nickel and cadmium. They were phased out for several reasons, including the toxicity of cadmium.
  • Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH). These were an upgrade to NICad batteries, replacing the cadmium with hydrogen. The electrodes (the positive and negative ends of the battery) were usually a mix of metals.
  • Lithium-ion (Li-ion). Today, lithium-ion batteries have largely replaced other forms of rechargeable batteries. The inside houses lithium ions, while the electrodes can be made from several different materials. Most commonly, the cathode (positive side) is made from lithium cobalt oxide, while the anode (negative end) is made of graphite, a form of carbon.

Lead-acid batteries. Lead-acid batteries are the type used in cars, boats, and industrial equipment. The electrodes of these batteries are different forms of lead, while the acid inside is sulphuric acid.

Can You Recycle Batteries?

Most types of batteries are recyclable. Many of the heavy metals in batteries can be recovered and used again, including:

  • Cadmium
  • Cobalt
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Mercury
  • Nickel
  • Zinc

These metals then go on to be a part of new batteries or other types of goods.

How Does Recycling Batteries Help the Environment?

Many of the metals that make up batteries are toxic when they leach into the environment. Some of the most dangerous heavy metals found in batteries include cadmium, lead, and mercury. By recycling batteries, you’re ensuring that these elements are reused or disposed of properly, keeping them out of the environment.

Dangers of Heavy Metals in the Environment

Cadmium, lead, and mercury are all extraordinarily damaging to the environment. Exposure to these elements can lead to severe illness.

Cadmium. Cadmium occurs naturally in the environment, but humans have increased the amount through industries like mining and smelting. When cadmium gets into the soil, crops planted there may absorb it, bringing it into the food chain. 

Ingesting cadmium can lead to bronchitis and symptoms similar to food poisoning. Inhaling cadmium fumes can cause chemical pneumonitis, a type of lung irritation, and pulmonary edema, a condition where fluid builds up in the lungs, as well as other respiratory issues. Long-term exposure to cadmium may lead to:  

  • Cardiovascular effects such as increased blood pressure
  • "Itai-itai" Disease, a disease first discovered in Japan that includes symptoms like severe osteoporosis and kidney dysfunction
  • Renal effects including kidney dysfunction and failure
  • Respiratory effects, especially in smokers as tobacco plants can absorb cadmium from the soil.
  • Skeletal lesions, as cadmium can build up in bones and affect calcium metabolism

Lead. While lead poisoning isn’t nearly as common as it used to be thanks to its reduced use, humans are still dealing with the effects of the extended usage of lead in things like pipes, paint, and gasoline. There is no safe level of lead exposure.

Lead is perhaps most well-known for causing devastating and irreversible neurological damage. Other long-term effects of lead toxicity include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Decreased fertility
  • Developmental delays
  • Heart disease
  • Inhibiting the body from making hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells
  • Kidney disease

Mercury. Mercury is a common contaminant. While some level of mercury exposure is safe, it is toxic in high doses or over prolonged exposure. In fact, the expression “mad as a hatter” supposedly came about from the neurological conditions suffered by hat makers, who used mercury to shape hats.

Health effects of mercury exposure include:

  • Emotional changes or instability
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nerve problems
  • Poor mental function
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tremors or twitching

How to Recycle Batteries

The way you recycle batteries will depend on where you live and the type of battery you’re hoping to recycle. 

Some municipal recycling services will pick up alkaline batteries for you if you put them in a bag and set them on top of your curbside can. For those who don’t have that option, Earth911 and Call2Recycle both have tools on their websites to help you locate places near you that will take your batteries. 

You can often recycle lead batteries, like car batteries, at auto parts or home improvement stores. Similarly, tech and office supply stores can often take lithium-ion batteries. 

Button batteries and alkaline batteries may be a little trickier to recycle. You may be able to find a retailer for these, but often you’ll have to visit a nearby recycling center instead.

Show Sources

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “Lead Toxicity Cover Page.” “What Diseases Are Associated with Chronic Exposure to Cadmium?” “What Health Effects Are Associated With Acute High-Dose Cadmium Exposure?” “Where is Cadmium Found?” “Where is Lead Found?”
Australian Academy of Science: “Types of batteries.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “NIOSH Backgrounder: Alice's Mad Hatter & Work-Related Illness.”
Clean Energy Institute: “Lithium-Ion Battery.”
Consumer Reports: “Yes, You Need to Recycle Your Old Batteries.”
Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety: “Cadmium concentrations in tobacco and tobacco smoke.”
Environmental Protection Agency: “Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury,” “How People are Exposed to Mercury.”
Mayo Clinic: “Pulmonary edema.”
Merck Manual: “Chemical Pneumonitis.”
Mount Sinai: “Hemoglobin.”
Molecular Expressions; “Zinc-Carbon Batteries.”
United States Department of Labor: “Toxic Metals.”
University of Illinois: “Battery Recycling: Battery recycling facts.”

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