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Lead acid led to the success of early recycling and today more than 97 percent of these batteries are recycled in the USA. The automotive industry should be given credit for having organized recycling early on. The recycling process is simple and 70 percent of the battery’s weight is reusable lead. As a result, over 50 percent of the lead supply comes from recycled batteries. Other battery types are not being returned as readily as lead acid, and several organizations are working on programs to make collection of spent batteries more convenient. Only 20 to 40 percent of cellular phone and consumer batteries are currently recycled.

The main objective for recycling batteries is to prevent hazardous materials from entering landfills. Lead acid and nickel-cadmium batteries are of special concern, and although lithium batteries are less harmful, the aim is to include all batteries in the recycling programs. Do not store old lead acid batteries in households where children play. Simply touching the lead poles can be harmful. Read more about the Health Concerns with Batteries.

Even though they are environmentally unfriendly, lead acid batteries continue to hold a strong market niche. Wheeled mobility and UPS systems could not run as economically if it were not for this reliable battery. NiCd also continues to hold a critical position among rechargeable batteries. Large flooded NiCds start the Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) of commercial airplanes and power sightseeing boats in rivers of larger cities, pollution-free.

Toxic batteries will continue to be with us for a while longer because we have no practical alternatives. There is nothing wrong in using these batteries as long as we properly dispose of them. Europe banned NiCds in consumer products because there is a suitable replacement, the nimh batteries. Controlling the disposal of NiCds from consumer products is difficult because many users do not know that the retiring equipment includes this battery. The long-term environmental damage if the world’s NiCds were improperly disposed of could be devastating.

Let’s look at what happens when NiCds are carelessly disposed of in landfills. The metallic cylinder of the cell eventually begins to corrode and the cadmium gradually dissolves, seeping into the water supply. Once such contamination begins, the authorities have few options to stop the carnage. Our oceans already show traces of cadmium (along with aspirin, penicillin and antidepressants) but scientists are not certain of its origin. Regulatory discipline will lead to a cleaner environment for the next generations.

Nickel-metal-hydride batteries contain nickel and electrolyte, which are considered semi-toxic. If no disposal service is available in an area, individual NiMH batteries can be discarded with other household waste. When accumulating 10 or more batteries, the user should consider disposing of the packs in a secure waste landfill. The better alternative is bringing the spent batteries to a neighborhood drop-off bin for recycling.

Primary lithium battery pack contain metallic lithium that reacts violently when in contact with moisture and the batteries must be disposed of appropriately. If thrown in the landfill in a charged state, heavy equipment operating on top could crush the cases and the exposed lithium would cause a fire. Landfill fires are difficult to extinguish and can burn for years underground. Before recycling, apply a full discharge to consume the lithium content. Non-rechargeable lithium batteries are used in military combat, as well as watches, hearing aids and memory backup. Li-ion for cell phones and laptops do not contain metallic lithium.

In North America,Toxco and Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) collect spent batteries and recycle them. While Toxco has its own recycling facilities, RBRC is in charge of collecting batteries and sending them to recycling organizations. Toxco in Trail, British Columbia, claims to be the only company in the world that recycles large lithium batteries. They receive spent batteries from oil drilling in Nigeria, Indonesia and other places. Toxco also recycles retired lithium batteries from the Minuteman missile silos and tons of Li-ion from the war in Iraq. Other divisions at Toxco recycle nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal-hydride, lead, mercury, alkaline and more.

Europe and Asia are also active in recycling spent batteries. Among other recycling companies, Sony and Sumitomo Metal in Japan and Unicore in Belgium have developed technology to retrieve cobalt and other precious metals from spent lithium ion batteries. The raw material lithium can also be retrieved and re-used repeatedly. Read about Battery Recycling as a Business.
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