He’s a retired Regulatory Affairs Manager. His professional knowledge and experience trump what I had long thought. Still, I decided to investigate further.
Recently, California declared all batteries hazardous wastes and outlawed putting them out for regular trash collection.
Otherwise, there’s no law against putting single-use batteries in the trash. But just because something isn’t illegal doesn’t make it all right.
And dead rechargeable batteries are a different story.
All batteries work by combining two metals and an electrolyte. The lead-acid battery in your car and the button battery in your watch have different ingredients but operate on the same principle.
Alkaline batteries contain zinc at the positive pole and manganese dioxide at the negative pole. They use one of two strong alkalis, potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, as the electrolyte.
Before about 1993, alkaline batteries also contained mercury, but manufacturers reformulated the makeup of their batteries to omit it. The remaining metals are not considered hazardous. Officially, at least, they pose no risks to either human health or the environment.
Rechargeable batteries still contain mercury. They may contain lead, cadmium, and other heavy metals. The state of New York has outlawed putting them in the trash. Stores that sell them must take them back for proper disposal at no charge. They are not required to accept the return of button batteries, but many do.
Federal regulations define hazardous waste as substances that exhibit one or more of four characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity.
I looked up potassium hydroxide. It is a corrosive and reactive substance that is unstable when it comes in contact with water. It is one of a large number of substances that, if released into the environment, must be reported to the public if the amount crosses a specified threshold.
That threshold for potassium hydroxide in 1000 pounds. In other words, the federal government does not consider the small amount in a D-cell as hazardous. (My friend the Regulatory Affairs Manager says that it is indeed illegal to put larger batteries in the trash.)
I have not conducted a state-by-state survey, but only New York and California turned up on my search about the legality of putting batteries in the trash. It’s probably not illegal in most of the country.
New York tells its citizens to put alkaline batteries in the regular trash. The District of Columbia, on the other hand, encourages its citizens not to. It wants people to take all batteries to a drop-off center, which is open for that purpose two days a week.
Both jurisdictions further ask citizens to tape the poles of lithium batteries and rechargeable with clear packing tape, masking tape, or electrical tape. And also sandwich button batteries between two layers of tape. If they haven’t completely discharged and come in contact with each other, they pose a fire risk. Alkaline batteries need not be taped.
Batteries contain valuable metals from heavy metals like cadmium to lithium, the lightest of all. Unfortunately (probably because of the electrolytes) no one has yet developed a practical and cost-effective way of separating batteries into their component parts.
In other words, with available technology, it costs more to separate the metals than the monetary value of the recovered materials.
I would like to think that the battery industry and others are hard at work to solve the problem, and that their scientists will find viable ways to recycle batteries. What should we do in the meantime?
At the very least, take dead batteries to a household hazardous waste drop-off center. And don’t forget rechargeable products with non-removable batteries. If you don’t know where to find a drop-off center, go to Earth911.com or phone them at 1-800-CLEANUP (1-800-253-2687). You can find not only the nearest center, but other alternatives that may be more convenient.
Another national program, The Big Green Box™, accepts batteries and electronics through the mail. Simply purchase a mailing box. The price includes all shipping, handling, and disposal fees.
Except as noted then, it is perfectly legal to put household batteries in the trash. But please don’t.
What are your options where you live? People who live in urban and rural areas probably have different experiences. Let’s share.
Batteries: common wastes & materials / US Environmental Protection Agency
Fact Sheet: battery disposal / Infohouse
Batteries / CalRecycle [link no longer works]
Home batteries and battery-powered devices / NYC Recycles
Proper disposal of batteries / DC Department of Public Works