Due to environmental and safety concerns, mainly the toxic effects from ground-water runoff, old car batteries cannot simply be disposed of in the trash.
According to the New York City Department of Environmental Safety, the typical lead-acid auto battery is full of hazardous chemicals and materials, with the average car battery containing almost 18 pounds of toxic lead and over a gallon of sulfuric acid. Recycling old car batteries significantly reduces waste, as almost 100 percent of a lead-acid car battery is recyclable, drastically reducing the need for new raw materials.
Because of the environmental concerns, new methods have been specifically created for handling used auto batteries, namely recycling. While laws may vary across different jurisdictions, most states have statutes regulating auto-battery disposal, with some laws calling for harsh penalties with stiff fines for placing car batteries in the trash.
There are typically two methods of properly and legally getting rid of an old car battery. The first is to trade the old battery in when buying a new one, and there is usually a nominal trade-in allowance, of a few dollars, that is applied as a discount off a new battery. Since drivers will need a new battery anyway, this usually the best option.
The second method of disposal is to just drop off the old battery at an approved recycling center that handles hazardous waste. While some collection centers take in old batteries for free, others will charge a small fee. Many municipal governments also have hazardous-waste collection facilities and some counties even go so far as to hold hazardous-waste collection days, where county employees will visit neighborhoods collecting old car batteries.
Handling Used Lead-Acid Batteries
Due to the highly toxic components, safety precautions should always be followed when handling an old battery. Provided the battery casing is intact, and not leaking acid, no special handling is typically needed. However, if the casing is cracked the battery should be placed in some type of plastic container, as plastic will not react with sulfuric acid. The California EPA recommends carrying a battery with a cracked case in two six-millimeter plastic bags. If a battery has one or more missing caps the caps should be replaced before transport. Even with the caps on, batteries should be transported in an upright position.
Depending on its condition, the battery will either be recondition and resold or the battery will be stripped down to it individual components and those elements will be recycled whenever and wherever possible. Many battery manufactures have websites with details on how car batteries are recycled.
The Recycling Process
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the 12-volt auto battery is the most recycled product in the world. Just in the U.S. alone, roughly 100 million car batteries are replaced each year. During the recycling process, used car batteries are collected, the lead is separated from the polypropylene case, melted down and then reused to make new batteries. The electrolyte, typically sulfuric acid, is neutralized and recycled or chemically converted to sodium sulfate to be used in fertilizer. The plastic case is also recycled, being ground up after it has been cleaned. As a result, a new car battery is typically made up of over 75 percent of recycled materials.
Concerns have been raised over all the new lithium-ion batteries being produced for use in electric and hybrid vehicles, specifically what will happen to all the materials when the batteries reaches the end of its useful life. Visions of the battery packs collecting in landfills are a bit overblown, as even after a used lithium-ion pack reaches the end of its usefulness for powering vehicles it still retains most its ability to store energy.
However, in response to concerns, the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a cooperative organization of several U.S. car manufacturers, has granted a $2.2 million contract to researchers to set up a lithium-ion battery recycling operation. The initiative also seeks to produce new electric vehicle batteries using recovered materials. So far, studies have made it possible to recycle as much as 80 percent of the cathode materials from used batteries. This initiative should help put new recycling processes in place by the time all the new electric vehicles start needing new batteries.