When you need a portable, convenient power source, you can rely on batteries. Batteries of all shapes and sizes supply power to everyday electronics like toys and power tools, but batteries also work where we don't see them too. During a power outage, phone lines still operate because they are equipped with lead-acid batteries. Batteries help control power fluctuations, run commuter trains, and provide back-up power for critical needs like hospitals and military operations. The versatility of batteries is reflected in the different sizes and shapes, but all batteries have two common elements that combine to make power: an electrolyte and a heavy metal.
Just the facts
- Americans purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries every year to power radios, toys, cellular phones, watches, laptop computers, and portable power tools.
- Inside a battery, heavy metals react with chemical electrolyte to produce the battery's power.
- Wet-cell batteries, which contain a liquid electrolyte, commonly power automobiles, boats, or motorcycles.
- Nearly 99 million wet-cell lead-acid car batteries are manufactured each year.
- Mercury was phased out of certain types of batteries in conjunction with the "Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act," passed in 1996.
- Recycling batteries keeps heavy metals out of landfills and the air. Recycling saves resources because recovered plastic and metals can be used to make new batteries.
One way to reduce the number of batteries in the waste stream is to purchase rechargeable batteries. Nearly one in five dry-cell batteries purchased in the United States is rechargeable. Over its useful life, each rechargeable battery may substitute for hundreds of single-use batteries.
Lead-acid automobile batteries
Nearly 90 percent of all lead-acid batteries are recycled. Almost any retailer that sells lead-acid batteries collects used batteries for recycling, as required by most state laws. Reclaimers crush batteries into nickel-sized pieces and separate the plastic components. They send the plastic to a reprocessor for manufacture into new plastic products and deliver purified lead to battery manufacturers and other industries. A typical lead-acid battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.
Non-automotive lead-based batteries
Gel cells and sealed lead-acid batteries are commonly used to power industrial equipment, emergency lighting, and alarm systems. The same recycling process applies as with automotive batteries. An automotive store or a local waste agency may accept the batteries for recycling.
Dry-cell batteries include alkaline and carbon zinc (9-volt, D, C, AA, AAA), mercuric-oxide (button, some cylindrical and rectangular), silver-oxide and zinc-air (button), and lithium (9-volt, C, AA, coin, button, rechargeable). On average, each person in the United States discards eight dry-cell batteries per year.
- Alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries
Alkaline batteries, the everyday household batteries used in flashlights, remote controls, and other appliances. Several reclamation companies now process these batteries.
- Button-cell batteries
Most small, round "button-cell" type batteries found in items such as watches and hearing aids contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. Button cells are increasingly targeted for recycling because of the value of recoverable materials, their small size, and their easy handling relative to other battery types.
- Rechargeable batteries
The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), a nonprofit public service organization, targets four kinds of rechargeable batteries for recycling: nickel-cadmium (Ni-CD), nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, and small-sealed lead. Its "Charge Up to Recycle!" program offers various recycling plans for communities, retailers, businesses, and public agencies.
Many states have regulations in place requiring battery recycling. The U.S. Congress passed the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Act in 1996 to make it easier for rechargeable battery and product manufacturers to collect and recycle Ni-CD batteries and certain small sealed lead-acid batteries. For these regulated batteries, the act requires the following:
- Batteries must be easily removable from consumer products, to make it easier to recover them for recycling.
- Battery labels must include the battery chemistry, the "three chasing arrows" symbol, and a phrase indicating that the user must recycle or dispose of the battery properly.
- National uniformity in collection, storage, and transport of certain batteries.
- Phase out the use of certain mercury-containing batteries.