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In the modern tech-driven world, batteries have become an essential part of our daily lives. From running a business on our laptops and cellphones to powering several household devices and even our cars now, we now depend on them for several use cases. However, with so many types available for different purposes, knowing how to dispose of batteries can be difficult.
As a result, most people don’t properly dispose of batteries and risk hazardous material entering the environment, killing wildlife, polluting the water, and harming the human body. So, if you’re one of those people who simply places old batteries in a trash can to get rid of them, you need to stop now.
In this article, we’ll talk about the importance of proper battery disposal, the most common types of batteries, and how to dispose of them the right way.
The Importance of Proper Battery Disposal
Since the 70s, there has been a massive surge in demand for batteries. Today, they come in different shapes and sizes, and billions of people use them to power up their electronic devices. These devices include portable computers, cell phones, toys and games, cameras, clocks and watches, calculators, and even home appliances. And even though these devices operate differently, all types of batteries have the same working principle – converting chemical to electrical energy and conducting power via an anode and cathode.
Once the battery runs out of juice, it should be disposed of safely. However, this isn’t the case as millions of used batteries end up in the trash every year. Throwing used batteries in the trash might seem harmless to you, but it can have a devastating impact on the environment. Most batteries are made of heavy metals and toxic materials, such as lead, nickel, cadmium, lithium, mercury, and zinc, etc. The following are the two main adverse effects of improper battery disposal.
1. Air and Water Pollution
When you toss depleted or used batteries into the trash can, they usually end up in landfills where they eventually break down and start leaking out the toxic materials. As the batteries start decaying or corroding, their chemicals contaminate ground and surface water through soil absorption and compromise our ecosystems.
This contaminated water not only affects thousands of aquatic plants and animals but also ends up in our taps at home. Moreover, lithium-ion batteries can become unstable over time if you don’t dispose of them properly. They have been responsible for many landfill fires that contribute to greenhouse gases and air pollution. These chemicals react with water vapor in the atmosphere to form acid rain and further pollute water bodies.
2. Health Problems
Most batteries contain acid, which upon exposure to the skin or eyes can cause burns due to their corrosive nature. The Toxic Substance and Disease Registry claims that toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium and nickel, are carcinogenic, which means they can potentially cause cancer when they enter the body through water and/or air. Lead is one of the densest metals on the planet. While it has several useful applications, it is still one of the most toxic metals. But unlike cadmium and nickel, lead doesn’t cause cancer. Instead, it leads to severe issues like neurological damage and congenital malfunction or disabilities. Mercury was one of the most popular battery materials back in the 80s and early 90s due to the peculiar nature that makes it an excellent conductor. However, the metal is highly toxic in vapor form and was banned in 1996. This is why it is key to know how to dispose of a battery as it is considered household hazardous waste.
Types of Batteries and How to Dispose Of them Properly
As mentioned earlier, batteries come in different shapes and sizes, depending on their build materials and use cases. Since every household consists of different types of batteries, we have split them into three distinct categories based on their differences and use cases. Using this information, you can learn how to dispose of batteries properly. These are:
1. Single-Use Batteries or Non-Rechargeable Batteries
Non-rechargeable or single-use batteries get their power from a simply irreversible chemical reaction. They are commonly used in appliances that require low power for a long time. The following are the main types of single-use batteries you can find in households:
Button-Cell or Coin Batteries
These are tiny, round batteries that you can find in products, such as calculators, watches, and small medical devices. A few decades ago, they were made using silver, mercury, and cadmium. However, modern coin batteries are made of lithium.
Button-Cell or coin batteries are potentially dangerous, especially if you have children in your home. They can lead to poisoning if you accidentally swallow them. To dispose of these non-rechargeable batteries, you can sell them to battery recycling companies or contact the local solid waste authority for more options.
Alkaline and Zinc Carbon Batteries
These are the most common single use batteries you can find in several household items, such as remote-control products, clocks, flashlights, radios, and toys, etc. They are available in different sizes, including AA, AAA, 9 volts, C, D-cells, and others.
The EPA recommends that you send used alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries to companies that recycle them. You can also check with your local solid-waste authority for more options. Many states have better solid waste management facilities, so you can toss them in the household trash as well. Always make sure that you can do so, otherwise send the batteries for recycling.
Lithium Single-Use Batteries
These are common non-rechargeable batteries you can use to power small electronic devices, like toys, cameras, and remote controls. They are made with Lithium metal, and you can easily distinguish them from alkaline batteries since they usually have both terminals on the same side and come in unique shapes.
To properly dispose of lithium batteries, place non-conductive tape over the terminals and toss them into a plastic bag. Do not put these batteries in the trash because they can spark and cause fires if the terminal ends touch. Instead, look for recycling companies near your home.
2. Rechargeable Batteries (Removable and Non-Removable)
Unlike single-use batteries, rechargeable batteries are capable of reversible reactions that allow them to recharge and regain their potential for further use. The following are the main types of rechargeable batteries you can find in households:
Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cd)
Nickel-cadmium batteries are typically found in cordless power tools, video cameras, and phones. They’re quite similar to AA or AAA batteries in terms of looks but unlike alkaline batteries, they are reusable.
If you’ve owned an old Nokia or Motorola phone, you’ve probably seen lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are commonly used to power older cellphones, laptops, toys, tablets, and other appliances. Most lithium-ion batteries are removable so they can be disposed of easily. However, non-removable ones are a potential fire hazard if broken or crushed.
Nickel Metal Hydride and Nickel Zinc
These batteries were common in the early 2000s and used to power old digital cameras, cordless phones, and radios. Nickel Zinc batteries, however, are still quite common in wireless keyboards and small electronics.
Small-Sealed Lead Acid (Pb)
These batteries are used to power up heavier electronic devices, such as scooters, UPS for computers, and solar panels.
Disposal of Rechargeable Batteries
Even though rechargeable batteries are removable and non-removable, they require similar proper disposal practices. To properly dispose of rechargeable batteries, you can contact the manufacturer, sell them to recycling companies, or shop from retailers that offer take-back services. A rechargeable battery usually contains hazardous materials and must be disposed of properly. Unlike some single use batteries, they can never be thrown to the trashcan. It’s best if they are taken to facilities that recycle rechargeable batteries.
3. Automotive Batteries
Automotive batteries are used in vehicles to start internal combustion engines and power the infotainment system and different connected accessories. Below are the two most common types of automotive batteries:
Lead-acid batteries are commonly found in cars, boats, motorcycles, and other motorized products. Many people use them for non-automotive use cases, such as backup power supply via solar panels or to start generators. These batteries are rechargeable and are loaded with lead and about a gallon of corrosive sulfuric acid.
The easiest way to properly dispose of lead-acid batteries is to return them to the battery retailer so they can recycle them. You can also sign up for a household hazardous waste collection in your area. Be sure to follow all warnings and instructions and never put these batteries in the trash. Sulfuric acid is highly flammable.
Medium/Large Lithium-Ion Batteries
These lithium-ion batteries are used to power up hybrid electric vehicles. They work similarly to your cellphone’s battery but on a much larger scale. These batteries can also be used to store solar energy more efficiently than lead-acid batteries.
These batteries are usually too big for consumers to dispose of by themselves. Read the manufacturer’s instructions regarding proper disposal and act accordingly. In most cases, you would be required to contact the electric vehicle dealer, a salvage yard, or the manufacturer. These batteries are a potential fire hazard so never toss them in the trash.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following are some frequently asked questions about disposing of non-rechargeable and rechargeable batteries:
1. Can battery acid burn you?
Yes, battery acid contains sulfuric acid and lead, which are extremely corrosive and can burn your skin upon contact.
2. Can battery acid start a fire?
Batteries emit hydrogen gas following a chemical reaction between lead and sulfuric acid. Hydrogen can ignite easily and result in a fire.
3. Are batteries in watches recyclable?
Yes, batteries use button-cell or coin batteries. Even though these are single-use batteries, they contain precious metal which makes them recyclable.
4. Which battery types are safe to throw away?
Alkaline batteries are the safest to throw away with normal household waste since they’re not considered hazardous waste. However it’s much better to recycle them as the metal part is usually reusable.
5. How Batteries are Disposed of?
It really depends on the battery type, but the key is that rechargeable batteries should never be thrown into the household trash and single use batteries only if your local waste management company recommends it. To find out what needs to be done with the specific type of battery in your area you can a) contact your local solid waste management company, b) the retailer or c) the manufacturer.
The bottom line is that placing depleted or old batteries in general waste is not a safe option, as the harmful chemicals can easily find their way to water supplies and into our bodies and even the safest batteries have recyclable parts, so it’s much more useful to collect them and bring them to a recycling facility. By learning how to dispose of batteries properly, you can play your role in saving the environment and preventing safety hazards.