There used to be a time when most of us would take getting our cars (and us) from A to B for granted, not even giving a thought to what happens when our car battery gets old, and well, dies. Of course, nowadays we’re all so much more eco-friendly, so we need to be aware of the damage that not recycling our car batteries — or recycling them incorrectly is doing to Mother Earth.
The great thing nowadays is that there are many people and companies that are recycling car batteries. In fact, according to Earth911, car batteries have a 98 to 99 percent recycling rate. That makes them the most recycled product in the whole of the country today!
The good news is that most people simply give their old batteries to the store or dealership where they’re getting their replacement, and the store recycles the batteries responsibly.
A typical car battery contains approximately one gallon of sulfuric acid, 21 pounds of lead, and three pounds of plastic. If you’re wondering how on earth all these are recycled, it’s time to find out more.
Distinguishing lead batteries from lithium-ion batteries
Recycling your old car battery is a wonderful way to give something back to the planet. However, it’s important to understand the difference between a lithium-ion battery and a lead one. This is due to the serious risk of explosion and fire if lithium-ion batteries enter the lead battery recycling stream.
For this reason, it’s important never to send lithium batteries to lead recyclers. That’s number one. And number two is to make sure you use an approved facility for both treatment and recycling. Often, these batteries can be disposed of at the manufacturer’s dealership.
To identify the different battery types, you can:
- Check the label – Lead batteries display the Pb symbol, whereas lithium ones bear the Li symbol.
- Check the weight – Lithium batteries are far lighter than their lead counterparts, and are usually used in electric vehicles, although some of these vehicle batteries can also be NiMH.
Telling the difference between battery types isn’t hard, but is something you need to keep at the forefront of your mind when recycling them.
How is a lead battery recycled?
Generally, the same transportation network that distributes car batteries will also collect and return spent ones for recycling. When the used batteries reach the recycling facility, they are broken up into components, and the process of recycling will begin.
The process of recycling begins with the old battery being broken apart by a special piece of machinery. After the battery is broken up, the pieces are put into a vat. The heavy materials, such as lead, fall to the bottom, while the plastics rise to the top. Next, any pieces of polypropylene are removed, the liquids are drawn off, and the heavy metals and lead are then left. The different materials are then put into a different stream.
Lead – All the cleaned lead parts are melted down, and poured into molds. The largest ingots, weigh around 2,000 pounds, and are known as hogs. Smaller ones are called pigs. After a while, impurities rise to the top of the molten lead, and are then scraped away before cooling.
After this process has taken place, the ingots are sent off to battery manufacturing companies, where they’re re-melted and used to make new battery parts and lead plates.
Plastic – Pieces of polypropylene are cleaned up, and sent to a recycler of plastics, where the bits are melted until they’re almost liquid-like. Next, the molten plastic is run through an extruder, to produce tiny, uniformly-sized plastic pellets. The pellets are then sold on to battery case manufacturers, and the process starts all over again.
Sulfuric acid – There are two ways that old battery acid can be dealt with:
Option 1 – Crystals of sodium sulfate are separated from used electrolyte (dilute sulfuric acid), recycled, and subsequently sold for use in detergent manufacturing, glass, and textiles.
Option 2 – Dependent on the recycler, used electrolyte can also be reclaimed, and reused to make more batteries. It can also be neutralized, and then sent to a water treatment plant.
Battery Recycling Programs in the United States
Some states levy a fee if you purchase a new automotive battery without exchanging your old one. That surcharge is waived if you trade in your old battery for your new one.
There are also various recycling programs at service and auto parts stores and clubs in the US, including:
- AutoZone – Will recycle your old battery, and will give you a $5 AutoZone merchandise card as a thank you.
- Advance Auto Parts – When you take your old battery in, they’ll give you a $10 store gift card in return.
- AAA (American Automobile Association) – The AAA car club offers an annual Great Battery Roundup to celebrate Earth Day. Local collection points set up for motorists to drop their batteries, and some of the proceeds of recycling go to charities, and environmental groups.
- Sears – Bring in your old automotive battery (or your boat, lawn, or garden battery), and receive a $5 Return Battery Award Card.
As you can see, it makes sense both for the environment, and for your wallet, to ensure you recycle all your old car batteries. Just be sure to check with your local store/club for restrictions or changes to its car battery recycling programs.
What are the environmental benefits of recycling car batteries?
In terms of environmental success stories, lead batteries are up there, with around 99 percent of all battery lead being recycled. This is incredible compared to the fact that only:
- 55 percent of aluminum beer and soft drink cans are recycled.
- 45 percent of newspapers are recycled.
- 26 percent of glass bottles are recycled.
- 26 percent tires are recycled
The reason a lead battery has such an edge in terms of being recycled is the fact that it contains between 60 to 80 percent already recycled plastic and lead. When the battery is done, this process goes on over and over again indefinitely. What this means is that car battery recycling is very successful from both a cost and an environmental perspective.
Car Battery Recycling FAQ
You probably have lots of questions about recycling car batteries, so here are some of the most common:
Can I make money from my old car battery?
Indeed, you can! Your old car battery can be taken to the local scrapyard. There are also certain auto parts places that will take a deposit on a new battery when you buy it, so you can get a pay-out when it’s time to return it for recycling.
Do car batteries contain recycled materials?
Yes, they do. According to Battery Council International, typical new lead-acid battery is made up of between 60 and 80 percent recycled plastic and lead.
What do service shops and auto parts stores do with old batteries?
Abiding by their contracts with battery recyclers and manufacturers, as well as state and regional laws, certified service shops tend to ship out their dead batteries for recycling en masse.
Will it cost me to recycle my old car battery?
Most auto parts stores will recycle your batteries on a complimentary basis, when you buy a new car battery.
How long does a car battery last?
That depends on a number of factors, including your driving habits, temperature, battery fluid level, condition of your vehicle’s electrical system, and number of charge and discharge cycles. On average though, you can expect your diesel-fueled or gasoline-powered car battery to last in the two to five year range.
If you live in a cooler climate, such as the northeast, you can expect your car battery to last near the high end of that range or even longer. There are generally more battery casualties in the fall and winter than any other time of the year, after the heat and humidity of hot summer months weakens a vehicle’s battery. Warm climates are unfriendly to a car battery due to water loss and sulfation.
On the other hand, if you happen to have an electric or hybrid car, you can expect your battery to live for about eight years on average.
Are there signs that my car battery is failing?
Sometimes your car battery will just die on you out of the blue. In other cases, you might be given some warning signs that your battery is failing. These include electrical systems going on and off, signs of acid leaking on or around the battery, and corrosion buildup on the battery terminals.
So, now you know how, rather than tossing your next used battery into the garbage, why not recycle it instead? When a car battery is recycled, the lead is separated, acids are neutralized, and all harvested materials are used in so many different ways. More importantly, recycling stops toxic chemicals from entering the atmosphere, helping protect our world for generations to come.
Right now it’s estimated that up to 99% of vehicle batteries are recycled. Can we get to 100%?
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