When compared to older alkaline battery models (sometimes referred to as "legacy" batteries), lithium batteries are lighter, supply more energy and perform better in extreme environments. Combined with their ability to be recharged, it's no wonder that lithium batteries – and their higher-capacity siblings, lithium ion batteries – have been adopted for use in everything from remote controls to toys, watches, laptops, tablets and smartphones. However, the components that make these batteries so helpful come with a cost: Whether they come in pouch, cylinder or button battery form, lithium and lithium ion batteries are hazardous in traditional waste disposal and recycling processes. As a result, as far as lithium battery disposal is concerned, you'll need to follow a few specialized procedures.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Because they are made from heavy metals and sensitive power cells – which can cause fires in landfills and leak harmful chemicals into the ground – it's important to recycle old batteries whenever possible. Button style, 3-volt lithium batteries should be disposed of like any other type of lithium battery: Drop them off at a battery recycling center or battery drop-off, or request a battery pick-up through your local government's website.
Why Recycle Old Batteries?
As technology improves, and as consumer demand for electronic devices like laptops and tablets increases around the world, batteries have become a significantly larger part of the waste generated each year – especially when you consider how often people upgrade phones and computers. Recycling old batteries allows the metal material in each battery to be reused in new products, reducing the amount of landfill waste generated by disposed batteries, which are not biodegradable. In the case of lithium and lithium ion batteries, recycling is required by law to prevent the batteries from leaking toxic metals and chemicals into the ground, and because the batteries can be hazardous otherwise.
Lithium Battery Hazards
Lithium and especially lithium ion batteries present hazards in household trash environments. If you've ever seen photos or video footage of a garbage truck with flames coming from its back or top, it may have been the result of a damaged lithium or lithium ion battery being thrown out with the regular garbage. Many batteries of this type contain small amounts of flammable liquid that, when the battery is damaged or short-circuits, or is exposed to extreme heat or flame, can super-heat itself, which can cause a chain reaction leading to a major battery failure. In lithium and lithium ion batteries, these failures can cause the battery to smoke heavily, spark, light on fire, or, in extreme cases, explode in ways that can harm people around the battery. As a result, these batteries must be processed and handled in specialized environments. While 3-volt lithium batteries – commonly seen as button-style batteries – contain too little lithium and too little energy to fail in such dramatic ways, they still cannot be disposed of in your normal household trash or recycling.
Identifying Lithium Batteries
The first step to properly disposing of lithium batteries is to identify them. On cylindrical and button-style batteries, there will usually be a label or engraving designating the battery as lithium. On pouch-style batteries, as well as lithium ion batteries intended for laptops, cameras and similar electronics, the label listing the battery's details should note the makeup of the battery.
Proper Lithium Battery Disposal Methods
Once you've identified your lithium battery, you can dispose of it safely. This process is the same, regardless of battery style: To ensure the safe processing of your batteries, drop them off at a dedicated battery recycling center or a battery drop-off bin located at your local electronics retailer. If you have a large amount of these batteries to dispose of at once, you might be able to request a battery pick-up through your local government's website. When packing your batteries for pick-up, it's recommended to cover the battery terminal or terminals with a non-conductive tape, and bundle the batteries together based on their type. Lithium ion disposal should be performed in a similar fashion – though it is recommended to allow these batteries to discharge before taking them in for recycling.
- Environment, Health, and Safety Online: Battery Recycling and Disposal Guide for Households
- State Farm: How to Dispose of Batteries and More
- AtBatt: Battery Disposal Guide
- Energizer: Where to Recycle Batteries
- American Disposal: Lithium Ion Batteries
- SFPE: Lithium Ion Battery Hazards
- University of Washington: Lithium Battery Safety
- UC Santa Cruz: Battery Recycling FAQs
- California residents should contact the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for a list of disposal centers in California.
- Always dispose of lithium 3V batteries properly. Failure to do so will expose the environment (lake, streams, landfills) to heavy metals, corrosive acids and other dangerous materials. Contact with an old lithium 3V battery may result in skin damage if leakage has taken place.
About the Author
Blake Flournoy is a writer, reporter, and researcher based out of Baltimore, MD. Working independently and alongside professors at Goucher College, they have produced and taught a number of educational programs and workshops for high school and college students in the Baltimore area, finding new ways to connect students to biology, psychology, and statistics. They have never seen Seinfeld and are deathly scared of wasps.