What do I do with old batteries?

Some locales send ‘em to landfill, but there are better options


It’s difficult to go a day without touching a battery-powered device. Everything from our phones, doorbells, coffee grinders, and cars rely on them for juice. But our beloved power packs can only last so long: Many rechargeable ones peter out after a few years, and single-use batteries only last as long as their given capacity.

To avoid safety risks and help close the loop on battery production as we go increasingly electric, it’s important to dispose of household batteries responsibly rather than sending them right to the landfill—or letting them fester in your junk drawer.

The environmental impact of improper battery disposal

When you toss batteries into the bin, they can have far-reaching impacts on nature. Potentially dangerous materials in batteries, such as heavy metals, can seep out of landfills and contaminate groundwater and soil.1,2 Lithium batteries are also sparking fires at landfills across the country, which prove difficult for firefighters to extinguish because the blazes can worsen when coming into contact with water. 

Battery production can also cause significant damage. Mining operations use lots of water, pollute surrounding areas and produce millions of tons of carbon emissions annually. 

Importance of recycling batteries

Recycling batteries is safer and more sustainable than keeping them at home or throwing them in the bin. Recycling can reduce the need to mine at high rates, since batteries rely on critical minerals such as graphite, lithium, and cobalt. But there’s a catch:  While we should do our best to recycle batteries, electronics manufacturers still have to design products more responsibly, says Lucas Gutterman, ​​director of the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group’s (PIRG) Designed to Last campaign against e-waste and planned obsolescence.

For example, disposable items like vapes likely aren’t the best use for rechargeable batteries. Companies could instead prioritize using critical minerals for important technologies like electric vehicles. In fact, more than 90 tons of lithium went into global production of single-use vapes in 2022; that’s enough lithium to produce more than 11,000 electric vehicle batteries.

“We’re increasingly gonna see rechargeable batteries in really important functions as our society becomes more and more electrified, and it is not possible for us to have a linear approach to these products”

Lucas Gutterman, U.S. Public Interest Research Group

“Recycling is not ultimately the solution here,” Gutterman says. “The critical minerals and metals that are used to make current and future battery technologies are inherently limited—despite the fact that recyclers try their best to recover all of these minerals, it can be difficult both scientifically and economically.”

Plus, Gutterman points out that personal devices like phones and earbuds generally no longer allow us to easily remove and swap batteries—a broader design issue perpetuated by tech giants like Apple and Google. Airpods and iPhones, in fact, have adhesive to keep the batteries in place, so you have to be particularly crafty to remove them. “We cannot have expensive, wasteful products that are designed with no ability to keep them in use for more than a year or two,” Gutterman says.

Federal and state battery recycling laws

Battery recycling is regulated on both the federal and state levels. In 1996, Congress passed a law to encourage rechargeable battery recycling. This phased out batteries containing mercury and included uniform labeling requirements (like adding recycling symbols, where applicable, and instructions to dispose of certain batteries properly) along with streamlining legal requirements for battery collection programs. The EPA also enforces regulations that make it easier for facilities to collect and recycle batteries by easing the strict rules usually applied to other potentially hazardous types of waste.

Beyond federal regulations, some states have passed laws to promote battery recycling. (Call2Recycle maintains a database of these measures here.) In California, for instance, companies that make certain batteries and battery-containing products and sell them in-state must run a battery collection and recycling stewardship program. New York, meanwhile, requires retailers that sell rechargeable batteries to collect most used ones for recycling and prohibits tossing spent rechargeables in the trash. But some states lack any battery recycling requirements.

Some battery regulations can have unintended consequences and potentially prevent recycling, says Gutterman. He points out how a New York City law signed last year bans the sale of refurbished lithium-ion batteries. “We’re increasingly gonna see rechargeable batteries in really important functions as our society becomes more and more electrified, and it is not possible for us to have a linear approach to these products,” he says. “Once the battery in our electric cars, or our e-scooters or phones is no longer holding its charge, we need to have systems in place to remanufacture, reuse, resell and recycle these products.”

How successful is battery recycling in the U.S.? 

Recycling rates in the U.S. can vary widely by battery type. Around 99% of the country’s lead batteries get recycled, but the number drops to around 5% for lithium-ion batteries. This disparity exists for a number of reasons, including quickly evolving lithium-ion battery technologies, difficulty in taking apart compact yet complex designs, and high recycling costs.

While researchers are looking into improved battery recycling techniques,3 Gutterman urges manufacturers to return to the days of more easily accessible and replaceable batteries in our personal devices—rather than forcing us to buy entirely new gadgets and wasting other components in the process. “Having batteries that can be easily removed would allow consumers to replace just that part and would allow recyclers easier access as well,” he says. “This is the way it used to be … we used to even carry spare batteries with us.”

Can I just throw batteries in the trash? 

Depending on where you’re located, the local waste management department might advise you to just put your spent cells in the trash. Call2Recycle maintains a detailed list of each state’s laws. In California, for example, it’s illegal to put old batteries in household trash or recycling collection. Some batteries, such as rechargeable varieties and most single-use varieties, can prove dangerous in the trash because they can catch fire or even blow up.

Even if they don’t combust in landfills, batteries also have the potential to leach harmful, corrosive chemicals like mercury, nickel, and lead into surrounding water and soil. So ultimately, it may be best to avoid throwing any batteries in the rubbish—even if it’s allowed where you live.

Types of household batteries

Household batteries generally fall into three categories. First are alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries, which are single-use cells that often power small devices such as digital cameras, remotes, and radios. These are your ubiquitous AAs, AAAs, and 9-volts. Other single-use batteries include button-cell or coin batteries, which are small, round batteries usually made of lithium metal. These typically power items like watches, hearing aids, and keyless car fobs. Disposable batteries are also made from lithium metal and put into tech like cameras, watches, and smoke detectors.

Then there are two main types of reusable batteries. Rechargeable nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries are common in products such as cordless power tools, cordless phones, and video cameras. They might look similar to single-use alkaline batteries, or a battery pack shaped for certain tools. Rechargeable lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries often power items such as cellphones, power tools, laptops, e-cigarettes, tablets, and e-readers. There’s also nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH)—which is put into cell phones, cordless power tools, and digital cameras—but has become less popular in recent years. 

Important safety precautions when handling used batteries

All batteries should be kept in a cool, dry place at normal room temperature. When handling spent lithium-ion batteries or any rechargeable battery, put each one in a separate plastic bag and/or put non-conductive tape over the battery’s terminals (or the whole battery, in the case of a button battery). 

If a battery is damaged, handle it with personal protective equipment to avoid injury. As for a damaged lithium-ion battery, reach out to the battery or device manufacturer for handling information.

If you notice intense heat coming from the battery that doesn’t quickly dissipate, you can call your local non-emergency service telephone number before reaching out to emergency services. If you observe a lithium-ion battery fire, the U.S. Department of Transportation advises you to leave the area, close the door, and call 911 right away.

How to recycle single-use batteries

Alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries

To get rid of spent alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries, you may be able to drop them in household trash or find local recycling options. Check with your local solid waste authority for more information, or use this Call2Recycle database to search for recycling options in your area. These typically get separated into their components—zinc and manganese concentrate, steel, and paper and plastic—and then reused in new products like batteries, kitchenware, or even asphalt. 

Button-cell or coin batteries

If these are made from lithium (the packaging and label will let you know) they can’t go into household trash or recycling collection bins due to potential fire hazards. To dispose of lithium button-cell batteries, search Earth911 to find a recycling center near you. Be sure to put each battery into separate plastic bags or put non-conductive tape around the entire button or on the battery’s terminals. A lithium battery can catch fire if damaged, or if the terminal ends touch. If the battery becomes damaged, reach out to the manufacturer for instructions. 

If your button-cell batteries are made from alkaline or zinc-carbon, the EPA recommends sending them to a battery recycler or asking your local or state solid-waste authority for instructions. 

Lithium single-use batteries

Single-use lithium batteries like those found in cameras, smoke detectors, and watches shouldn’t go into household trash or recycling collection bins because they can catch fire when damaged or when the terminal ends touch, so make sure to put them into separate plastic bags or apply non-conductive tape to the battery’s terminals. Earth911 maintains a database of recycling centers that accept lithium single-use batteries.

How to recycle rechargeable batteries

Nickel cadmium (Ni-Cd) batteries, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries and Nickel metal hydride (Ni-MH) batteries

If you’re able to remove them from a device, all of the rechargeable batteries listed above can be brought to specialized battery recyclers near you (Earth911 has a great database), retailers that take back batteries (check Call2Recycle for a good search tool), or a household hazardous waste collection program run by your local waste-management department. 

But some rechargeable batteries can’t be removed, such as some in laptops and cellphones. In that case, you can bring the whole device to retailers with electronics takeback services, certified electronics recyclers, or your local electronics or household hazardous waste collection program.

Automotive battery recycling

Lead-acid batteries

Lead-acid batteries are most commonly found in vehicles such as cars, boats, golf carts, and wheelchairs. They’re also used as backup power in basement sump-pumps. The EPA recommends that you return lead-acid batteries to a battery retailer or local household hazardous waste collection program—don’t throw them in curbside trash or recycling. 

These require careful handling because they can contain up to 18 pounds of lead and around a gallon of corrosive lead-contaminated sulfuric acid. Make sure to closely follow the battery’s warnings and instructions.

Medium and large-scale Li-ion batteries

Unlike the smaller lithium-ion batteries found in our personal devices, bulkier batteries power most plug-in and hybrid electric vehicles, along with home energy storage. These power packs can be large and complex, so you may not be able to remove them yourself. In the case of vehicles, contact the dealer. For energy storage systems, reach out to the energy manufacturer or the company that installed the battery.
If your lithium-ion battery appears to be leaking or damaged, don’t ever throw it in the trash where it can pose a safety hazard. Start by storing the battery in a non-flammable material such as a metal container—and be sure to wear protective gear such as gloves so you avoid skin contact. The EPA then advises you to contact the battery or device manufacturer for specific handling information.

Additional recycling and disposal tips

What do I do with old electronics?

Between 2010 and 2022, the amount of e-waste made per year jumped by 82%, reaching nearly 70 million tons, according to a recent United Nations report. When devices like old laptops, phones, and even cables get dumped into landfills or littered, heavy metals like lead and arsenic, along with flame retardants, can contaminate soil, water, and crops. Several states have gone so far as to ban sending any electronics to the dump. What are you supposed to do instead? Explore the best options to recycle your electronics.  

What do I do with old clothes and fabric?

Trends come and go with dizzying speed these days, and even the most sustainable shoppers aren’t immune to needing a white t-shirt refresh every now and again. It’s no wonder that textile waste adds up: The U.S. chucks around 68 pounds’ worth per person every year, according to the latest data from the EPA. Luckily, there’s plenty we can do with fabric and clothes we no longer need. Reputable donation and take-back programs are an excellent first step for items in good condition. For stuff that’s hanging on by a thread, consider upcycling it at home or, as a last resort, taking them to a recycler. Learn how to get rid of clothes clutter.  

What do I do with old cleaning products?

Getting rid of cleaning products can be quite messy. Some have the potential to rip through metal, burn skin, catch fire, and react violently to each other or just water and air. The key things to remember when getting rid of old cleaning supplies: read the labels carefully, never (ever) mix bleach and acid, and avoid dumping things down the drain. In many cases, household cleaners are considered hazardous waste, so if you find yourself with any excess, it’s important to understand how to dispose of cleaning products

What do I do with leftover medicine?

According to a survey run by Stericycle, nearly 40% of people say they hang on to leftover meds for future use, which means a lot of us have potentially expired scripts hiding in the back of the bathroom cabinet. Simply flushing those extra meds—as many folks do—can pose risks to people and planet. That’s why working through established take-back programs or using EPA– and DEA-recommended disposal methods is crucial. Learn how to dispose of expired or unused medicines

  1. Environmental Impact of Emerging Contaminants from Battery Waste: A Mini Review, Case Studies in Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Jun. 2021 ↩︎
  2. Environmental Impacts of Lithium-Ion Batteries, Institute for Energy Research, May 2023 ↩︎
  3. A Dead Battery Dilemma, Science, May 2021 ↩︎