Garbage Goat

“Hi! I’m GG the Garbage Goat, and I like to talk about trash. On my blog you’ll find interesting bits of information regarding how Spokane County handles its solid waste, how our recycling is handled, and other interesting things about waste. If you have questions about recycling or solid waste, you can contact the Spokane County Regional Recycling Information Line at 509-477-6800, or contact us online.”

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May 10

How Are Batteries Recycled?

Posted on May 10, 2019 at 9:55 AM by Austin Stewart

GG- Batteries_Scaled

Recycling a battery is not a straightforward process, and differs widely depending on which type of battery is being recycled. The types of batteries you probably use most regularly are lead acid batteries (like in a car), alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C, D, 9V, etc.), and lithium ion batteries (used in many rechargeable electronic devices). Each of these batteries is made of different components, and they are all recycled separately from each other.

No batteries should be thrown into the trash. Whether they are being landfilled or incinerated, it is not a safe or recommended disposal method. Some batteries, particularly lithium ion batteries, can spark quite easily and start fires at transfer stations and in collection trucks when disposed of as trash. When handling batteries or delivering them to a transfer station, place tape over one end of each battery so that no accidental circuit is formed. Even when a battery is considered nontoxic and safe for landfill disposal, the best option is to take it to the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) section of one of our region’s transfer stations.

Lead acid batteries, such as the batteries found in conventional cars, are made with elemental lead and are considered toxic. Recycling lead acid batteries starts with grinding up the batteries and neutralizing the acid. Machines crush the batteries to separate the lead from the acid and plastic parts, then the pieces are suspended in a liquid where the heavier metal elements can be taken from the bottom, while the lighter plastic parts can be pulled from the top. Once each material in the battery has been separated and treated so that it is no longer dangerous to handle, they can be recycled in their separate categories.

Alkaline batteries used to have higher amounts of mercury in them, making them toxic and dangerous for landfill disposal. However, modern US laws have prevented manufacturers from adding mercury to these batteries, and they are now considered non-toxic. Because alkaline batteries are not a serious threat to landfill safety, there’s less incentive to recycle them or process them separately from our normal waste stream. Alkaline batteries do not have to be disposed of at a designated HHW location, but because they’re easily confused with NiCad and Lithium batteries, all types are welcomed at HHW disposal locations where trained staff can properly identify battery types and dispose of them. You can also use the Spokane Kootenai Waste Directory to find the closest alkaline battery recycler near you. 

Lithium ion battery recycling is complex. These batteries contain valuable and limited metals, so recycling the materials in them is much more crucial. They’re also made of more complex materials, so they require additional steps to be recycled. Just like lead-acid batteries, lithium ion varieties are often crushed or ground to separate their individual parts. Then, sieves and liquid processes are used to further isolate the materials. Often heat is used to cause a transformation of the various metal minerals present in a lithium ion battery, creating usable materials that can be made into new products again. Currently, lithium is not usually one of the materials captured in lithium ion battery recycling. Extracting the lithium from the battery is more expensive than mining lithium directly from raw materials, and current recycling technology for this material is changing fast enough that there is not an established method. As lithium ion batteries continue to be a major part of our electronics such as smartphones and computers, better and more efficient recycling methods will have to be developed.

If recycling batteries is confusing to you, that’s alright. The variations and exceptions can be overwhelming, but you can always bring all your batteries to the Household Hazardous Waste section of one of our transfer stations. Keep your recyclables clean, dry, and empty, and focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs, and tin and aluminum cans.