Dear Omar

Can You Throw AA Batteries in the Trash? And Other Battery Mysteries, Solved

Take my dead batteries… please

Photo: Danilo Alvesd/Unsplash

It’s a nightmare where I’m drowning in a sea of dead and dying batteries. I am adrift in a pile of Duracells and Energizers and Evereadys and Rayovacs and Panasonics (do they still make those?), roiling together as a vast metallic sea. The batteries are old and corroding, and I fear that their ranks will keep growing and the acid will melt me, so I swim against the D and C and AA and AAA cells, trying to call to the mainland, warning them that ruin is coming to their shores.

Nobody listens, and when I wake up, my house is still full of these stupid dead batteries I’m too afraid to throw away. They fill kitchen drawers and lie bloated in old toys, tucked into plastic baggies meant for a recycling center that doesn’t seem to want them.

Like these batteries, I’m drained just thinking about it.

In a perfectly neat future world, one designed by Apple probably, all electronics would have discreet, hidden batteries that recharged for a while and eventually, when worn down, would be discarded with the device they powered, having expired at exactly the same time.

But we’re always one foot dragging behind with a toehold 10 or 15 years back, so we still use these packaged metal fuel cells to bring to life kids’ toys on Christmas Eve, to keep the Sunday football game action going with that “volume up” button on the remote, to power hearing aids and decorative fairy lights and sex toys and big flashlights and instant cameras.

These kinds of batteries, commonly called “alkaline,” are known as “primary” batteries in the electronics industry, as opposed to lead batteries (like the big ones in most cars and boats), lithium-ion batteries (laptops, cellphones), and various other types of rechargeable batteries using materials like nickel and cadmium.

You’d think that these primary batteries—your Duracells or knockoff CVS AA types—would be on their way out, improved upon by superior, newer technologies. But that’s not the case. Primary batteries were a $17.3 billion business last year, and they are expected to generate $24.61 billion a year by 2023. Rather than fading away, they are powering more electronic toys, drones, and portable medical devices than ever.

They’re also the kinds of batteries that, in my house, stack up when they expire, with nowhere to go. They’re not meant for the recycling bin. The recycling areas at retailers near me, like Target, Lowe’s, or Best Buy, only accept used batteries like the kinds you’d find in mobile phones.

When I worked in a newsroom, we kept a big box for people to throw the used batteries from portable digital recorders and TV remotes. The box would go somewhere, and something would happen to those batteries that was out of my control and far from my view. I’d bring in baggies of batteries from home and be rid of them. I assumed they were being recycled or disposed of safely.

Don’t these things have acid in them? Isn’t sending them to the landfill toxic to the environment?

Now that I’m self-employed, it doesn’t feel right just throwing these batteries in the garbage amid empty chip bags and last night’s spaghetti leftovers. Don’t these things have acid in them? Isn’t sending them to the landfill toxic to the environment? Am I due for an ass-whupping from Captain Planet if I throw away a dozen nine volts?

Desperate to close this nagging mental loop, I visited a Batteries Plus in my town. The shelves were lined with gigantic batteries meant for weed whackers and drones. I asked if this place, with “batteries” right there in the name, could take my old batteries and give them a dignified sendoff. The answer was no. They said that if they weren’t recyclable batteries, it was fine to just throw them away.

Again, this didn’t sound right. I called my local recycling center. They told me the same thing on the phone, even though that information seemed to conflict in some ways with the solid waste center’s own website.

Have I been fed bad information all these years? Should I have been less worried about throwing AAA and AA and C and D batteries into the trash?

I found an expert whose entire business is dealing with these types of battery issues. Chad Sepulveda, co-owner of Dallas, Texas–based Battery Recyclers of America, has built a business out of helping companies and individuals dispose of their used batteries responsibly. He says the idea that common batteries are toxic to landfills is no longer as true as it once was.

In 1996, Congress passed the U.S. Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act, more commonly known as the Battery Act. “It basically said that for alkaline batteries, like AA, AAA, C, and D batteries, they have to be made in a way where the landfills are safe,” Sepulveda told me. “The Home Depots and Lowe’s, they want your rechargeables and power-tool batteries and lithium button-cell batteries. But the AA and AAA stuff, they don’t take those, because they’re safe to throw away.”

A notable exception, however, is California, where it’s illegal to dispose of any kind of batteries in the trash. In that state, you must take batteries to a recycling or waste-disposal center.

The confusion and angst about what to do with batteries of all kinds is common enough that it has allowed Sepulveda to build his business across all 50 states. For $89 to $139, Battery Recyclers of America will ship out a bucket ranging from 20 to 55 pounds that can be filled and sent back at that flat rate, which includes shipping, recycling charges, and a certificate of recycling (Don’t tell anyone, but I have always wanted a certificate awarded to me for all my recycling.) You can fill the buckets with any combination of batteries, from coin cells to alkalines to rechargeables to lead batteries.

It’s more important than ever to recycle lithium-ion batteries, instead of, say, throwing old cellphones and rechargeable electronics into the dumpster.

Sepulveda says the Covid-19 crisis has put a crimp on collecting batteries. “Right now, people are more likely to just hold on to their batteries than pay to have them recycled,” he says. “There are definitely people still doing it, but it’s gone down somewhat on the homeowner level.” But, he says, some tech businesses have been using more batteries than ever in recent years, which has kept the business afloat.

As for the more dangerous batteries, such as the larger ones that contain lead, Sepulveda says auto shops and retailers that sell car and boat batteries are typically great at making sure the used items are properly recycled, and the process keeps improving as electric vehicles become more popular.

Some communities, including my own, host regular electronics drop-off events for recycling and disposal. That’s a good place to unload unwanted batteries without paying a fee.

With the long-nagging question about battery disposal answered, I’m left wondering if there are any other warnings about batteries we should heed.

Sepulveda says that even though we can use the trash for our common batteries, it’s more important than ever to recycle lithium-ion batteries instead of, say, throwing old cellphones and rechargeable electronics into the dumpster.

“It’s less about the danger and more about long-term sustainability,” he says. “What you have in a lithium battery is more rare and hard to find, and with the growth of tech, we’re using more of these batteries.” These materials include lithium, nickel, manganese, and cobalt. “It’s becoming a focus over the next decade or two in the recycling industry to really tighten up the lithium recycling market.”

Knowing all this and how I’d never even dream of putting a rechargeable battery in the trash, I think I may be able to finally sleep a little easier.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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