For most of my young adulthood, I kept an empty pretzel container in the back of my closet that I filled with spent batteries. As my collection grew, I made myself feel better about this battery boneyard by imagining it as a tiny cabinet of curiosities—with corroded AAs, an assortment of button-cell batteries, and an old smartphone standing in for precious objets d’art and reticulated skeletons—but in reality I just didn’t know what to do with them.
I wanted to spare my spent batteries from the trash can (where they could potentially catch fire or explode) and keep them out of the landfill (where they could leach harmful chemicals into local ecosystems), but I wasn’t sure how to recycle them. I was also skeptical that recycling would actually do anything, having spent decades dutifully recycling plastic with seemingly little impact (from 1980 to 2018, just 7% of all plastic generated was recycled in the US).
Fortunately, the landscape of options for battery recycling has evolved significantly as I’ve eased into my thirties. Unlike plastics, which are notoriously difficult and unprofitable to recycle, recycling the metals found in most batteries is simpler and often legally mandated, and it has become more lucrative as demand for electronics continues to rise. After reporting on batteries and charging accessories over the past few years, not to mention recycling batteries of all types, I’ve found that these are the best recycling methods—they’re easy to do and easy on the environment.
Drop them off
A growing number of municipalities, as well as several private companies, provide designated drop-off sites for battery recycling. Some offer this service for free, while others may charge a fee (usually based on the type and quantity of batteries you want to drop off). Either way, it’s a convenient option.
You can find electronic-waste recycling facilities in your area using these searchable databases:
- Call2Recycle specializes in battery recycling and lets you narrow your search by whether you’re looking to recycle rechargeable batteries, single-use batteries, cell phones, or e-bike batteries. It has an extensive list of public and private collection sites (including its own, which collects batteries weighing up to 11 pounds apiece).
- Greener Gadgets lets you search for facilities that recycle many types of e-waste, including televisions, monitors, computers and laptops, printers, and mobile phones. You can filter by the latter category to find facilities that also accept batteries, since most recyclers that collect battery-containing items such as phones take batteries as well. (Nevertheless, you should independently confirm that your preferred location accepts the kind of batteries you want to recycle.)
- Earth911 and GreenCitizen have nearly identical interfaces that allow you to locate recycling facilities for household waste of all kinds. Both let you search by keyword or by selecting a common type of waste listed on the left side of the page. I recommend selecting “batteries” then the most-specific category that appears in the drop-down menu (such as “alkaline batteries”) for best results.
Once you decide on a drop-off site, you may want to call ahead to confirm that it accepts the specific type(s) of batteries you have, just in case the website isn’t up to date. You should also see if they have any requirements on how to prepare the batteries, like sorting them by chemical composition—such as alkaline, lithium, or nickel metal hydride—or sealing them in a clear plastic bag.
Mail them in
If you’re homebound or simply prefer to recycle by mail, you have several good options.
First, see if your local recycling provider has a mail-in service. Just like buying local produce, it’s generally more sustainable to minimize the distance your batteries must travel from your home to their final destination (even though your local provider might very well ship them to an out-of-state or overseas materials recovery facility, anyway). Earth911’s database is the most useful tool I’ve found for addressing this concern, since it has a filter to zero in on mail-in programs.
If you don’t have a mail-in program in your area, the database shows results for national programs that accept batteries from your zip code as well. It also labels municipal programs and locations as such, which is helpful if you want to differentiate between public and private recycling services. If you still can’t find your provider in the database you’re using (none of them are comprehensive), you may need to do an old-fashioned Google search to find the main number for your local sanitation department, which should be able to point you in the right direction.
These are the mail-in services for battery recycling that I’ve tried and can recommend:
- Call2Recycle’s smallest Battery & Cellphone Recycling Kit ($55 at the time of publication) holds as much as 25 pounds. It accepts cell phones, coin and button-cell batteries, and batteries up to 300 Wh (the size of our budget pick for portable power stations), including both conventional alkaline batteries and others made of carbon zinc, lead acid, lithium, lithium ion, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and nickel zinc. The exterior is a basic cardboard box, but it has a flame-retardant interior liner, and it comes with 50 small bags to sort and seal up your batteries to prevent sparking or leaking. A pre-addressed shipping label and recycling fees are also included in the cost. In dollars per pound, this is the least expensive mail-in option I’ve tried.
- The Big Green Box “Mini” (about $35 at the time of publication) holds up to 10 pounds of batteries (including alkaline, carbon zinc, lithium, lithium ion, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and silver oxide) as well as a variety of household electronic devices (such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, power tools, gaming systems, and wireless earbuds). A roll of packing tape for covering battery terminals, a pre-addressed shipping label, and recycling fees are included in the cost of the box.
- The EasyPak Micro Battery Recycling Container from TerraCycle Regulated Waste ($80 at the time of publication) holds up to 10 pounds of batteries (about the weight of a miniature pinscher). It’s easy to use—simply fill it with batteries and ship it to a recycling facility—and a pre-addressed shipping label, home pickup, and recycling fees are included in the cost of the container. You can use it to send in a wide variety of battery sizes (including AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt) and chemical compositions (including alkaline, carbon zinc, iron, lithium, lithium ion, nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and silver). The container itself is made of a sturdy plastic—it’s a glorified bucket—so you don’t have to worry about it getting damaged from rusting, corroding, or leaking batteries.
Leave them out for pickup
Very few places in the US allow residents to put batteries out with their weekly recycling, but if it’s permitted where you live, it’s a great option. For instance, in some California cities you can recycle a wide variety of battery types this way, including both rechargeable and single-use AAA, AA, C, D, and 9-volt batteries. To take advantage of this service, residents must simply tape up their batteries’ exposed terminals (so they don’t short-circuit and start a fire), seal them in a plastic bag, and set them on top of their recycling bin on their regular pickup day. Taping and bagging your batteries might seem like a chore, but it’s worth doing: Minneapolis recently ceased all residential battery-recycling pickups after a vape pen started smoldering in a local library’s e-waste collection bin.
Usually, though, pickup has a few more stipulations. In some parts of Colorado, residents can call to schedule a pickup or wait for an annual collection of household hazardous waste. In Los Angeles, where I live, I can call the city’s sanitation department to request a curbside pickup. And people living in the Pennsylvania township of North Fayette have one of the cushiest setups I’ve seen: After registering and scheduling a pickup online, they receive a bag in the mail to fill with their batteries and other accepted waste, which they can then seal up and leave on the curb.
If you don’t know whether a government department or private contractor handles recycling in your area—let alone if they’ll pick up your used batteries—I’d start by checking Earth911’s searchable database. In addition to labeling each search result to indicate whether it’s a municipal or a private provider, the database has a color-coded list of the various items accepted during routine pickups. (But again, none of the databases I’ve used are entirely up to date or exhaustive, so you may need to confirm your findings with a phone call.)
Why bother recycling batteries?
If you’re jaded about the recycling industrial complex—and perhaps rightfully so—you might feel unmotivated to spend your time, energy, and possibly money on battery recycling. But you have several good reasons to do so.
For one, it’s safer than just dumping them in the trash. Improperly disposing of batteries can cause fires or explosions. Not only are you putting your own household in harm’s way when you toss batteries in the garbage, but you could be unwittingly risking the safety of sanitation workers who come into contact with your trash after it leaves your doorstep.
Even though some municipalities allow residents to put certain types of batteries in the trash, such as alkaline or carbon-zinc batteries, the EPA still recommends that you recycle them. It’s simpler than trying to remember which batteries go where, and (even with this handy guide) it’s easy to misread the fine print and confuse one battery type with another.
Trashing your batteries is also bad for local ecosystems. When batteries and other items containing heavy metals or other toxic materials end up in a landfill, they often leach harmful chemicals into local soil and water systems. But more often than not, nonferrous metals—the kind commonly used to make batteries and other electronics—are destined for the trash. For example, in 2018, about 3.4 million tons of aluminum, nickel, zinc, and other nonferrous metals were landfilled, whereas just 2.4 million tons were recycled.
Likewise, batteries may contain metals that can be salvaged and made into new electronics, reducing the overall need to mine more raw materials. This is good for consumers, since bottlenecks in the metal-mining industry can lead to shortages that hike up the cost of consumer electronics. Furthermore, the metal-mining industry has a long track record of human rights violations and is by far the biggest source of toxic chemicals released into the environment annually in the US.
Fortunately, it takes far less energy to recycle most metals than it does to produce them. Metal is highly energy-intensive to mine and process for manufacturing, but it’s generally one of the easiest materials to recycle. And unlike plastic and paper, which degrade each time they’re handled, metals can be recycled indefinitely.
Another great reason to recycle your batteries? It might encourage you to visit a new small business in your community. For example, until I saw it listed on Call2Recycle, I was unaware of a store near me called The Dinosaur Farm that specializes in dinosaur-related toys, books, and other paleontological paraphernalia. Lesson learned: Recycle your batteries, and avoid missing out on dinosaur-themed toy stores.
This article was edited by Ben Keough and Erica Ogg.