Have you ever looked around your home or office and noticed exactly how many electronics you own and use every day? Stop and think about how every one of these items uses a battery and every one of those batteries will most likely fail at one point.
We don’t give much thought to what we do with those spent batteries; we usually chuck them into the trash or take them to an electronic retailer, to recycle them. The importance of choosing the recycling option over the landfill cannot be stressed enough. These batteries that we use every day may seem relatively harmless but they contain toxins from chemicals, such as lead, sulfuric acid, cadmium, and lithium that can leak into the land and wreak havoc on public health and the environment.
Let’s take a deeper look at the various types of batteries and if they can be recycled .
Spent batteries in large quantities, are classified as hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and these wastes are regulated under the universal rules of hazardous waste regulations (40 CFR PART 273). These spent batteries can be sorted into four categories:
- Alkaline batteries
- Nickel-cadmium batteries
- Nickel-metal hydride batteries
- Lithium-ion batteries
Remote controls, toys, flash lights, clocks, game controllers, radios, most electronics
Nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries
Rechargeable batteries – cordless, wireless or digital items – digital cameras, power tools, medical equipment, some radios
Nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries
Satellites, rechargeable batteries for portable devices, digital and video cameras, power tools, equipment and radios
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium polymer (Li-poly) batteries
Laptop computers, tablets, e-readers, mobile phones, digital electronics, vehicles, boats
Alkaline/Zinc Carbon/Zinc Air Batteries
Because alkaline batteries contain no hazardous components requiring special handling as universal waste and are considered non-hazardous by the EPA, these batteries should be separated from the rechargeable batteries and can be disposed of as normal trash. They typically consist of common metals, such as steel, zinc, and manganese with a small amount of alkaline electrolyte.
Recycling Alkaline Batteries
However, these batteries should be and are recycled in a specialized “room-temperature” mechanical separation process where the battery components are separated into three end products. These products are:
- Zinc and manganese concentrate
- Paper and plastic
All of these products are put back into the marketplace for reuse in new products. And, these batteries are 100% recyclable.
Nickel-Cadmium, Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries
Home electronics often include rechargeable batteries, and many of them are of a nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) design. Unwanted computers, laptops, cell phones, and cordless phones or vacuums should be sorted and disposed of properly to avoid hazardous contamination.
Recycling Nickel-Cadmium Batteries
To recycle these batteries, plastics are separated from the metal components before smelting. The metals (such as nickel, iron, manganese, and chromium) are melted via a high-temperature metal reclamation (HTMR) process: the molten metals are solidified and the low-melt metals (such as zinc and cadmium) separate from the melt. The batteries are 100% recycled in this method and the metals and plastic are then reused in new products.
Recycling Lithium Ion Batteries
Lithium ion batteries contain metallic lithium that reacts violently when in contact with moisture, therefore these batteries must be disposed of appropriately by an approved e-recycler. If thrown in a landfill in a charged state, heavy equipment working in the landfill could crush the cases and the exposed lithium would combust causing a fire. Landfill fires are difficult to extinguish and can burn for years underground.
Before recycling, fully discharge the battery to consume the lithium content. Generally, a primary lithium cell is considered to be discharged once its voltage reaches 2 volts or less under a current of C/100 (C is the rated capacity of the battery in ampere-hours).
These batteries are recycled in a specialized “room-temperature, oxygen-free” mechanical process during which the battery components are separated into three end products. These items are:
- Cobalt and lithium salt concentrate
- Stainless steel
- Copper, aluminum and plastic
All of these products are then put back into the marketplace to be reused in new products. These batteries are 100% recycled.
Return on Investment
Each country imposes its own rules and fees to make recycling feasible. In North America, some recycling plants invoice on weight, and the rates vary according to chemistry. Nickel-metal-hydride batteries yield the best return, as the recycling produces enough nickel to pay for the process.
The dividends are endless when it comes to the return on investment for the beauty of the environment, longevity of our communities, and public health. By using this as a reference you now have a better idea on what batteries can and should be recycled.
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