Who Knew? A Car Battery Is the World's Most Recycled Product

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car batteries are highly recyclable - AAA

car batteries are highly recyclable - AAA

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A concern raised over upcoming electric-drive cars--the all-electric 2011 Nissan Leaf, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, and the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid--is what happens to their lithium-ion battery packs once the car's life ends.

Images of those battery packs tossed over cliffs or littering roadsides are a little overblown. Even after its automotive life is over, a used lithium-ion pack retains most of its energy capacity.

Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID lithium-ion battery pack

Mercedes-Benz S400 BlueHYBRID lithium-ion battery pack

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Advanced Battery Pack

Advanced Battery Pack

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2010 Toyota Prius high-voltage battery pack

2010 Toyota Prius high-voltage battery pack

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First Chevrolet Volt battery pack built at Brownstown Township plant, January 2010

First Chevrolet Volt battery pack built at Brownstown Township plant, January 2010

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Most analysts expect a secondary market for used batteries to arise late in the 2010s. For instance, packs might become energy accumulators for photovoltaic solar panels or wind turbines, meaning renewable electricity could be generated, stored and used locally.

But, worry the naysayers, won't that require a huge infrastructure to accumulate, value, and redistribute these used packs?

Well, yes. But there's a very good model in place already: It's how we handle today's conventional 12-Volt lead-acid starter batteries, the ones used in almost every single one of the 70 million or so motor vehicles built globally each year.

Turns out that the 12-Volt battery is the most recycled product in the world, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In the U.S. alone, about 100 million auto batteries a year are replaced, and 99 percent of them (p. 9) are turned in for recycling.

Roughly 97 percent of the lead in a 12-Volt battery can be recycled. The electrolyte, especially sulfuric acid, can be neutralized, repurposed, or converted into sodium sulfate used in fertilizers or dyes. Even the plastic case can be ground up and reused.

The one fly in the ointment? That recycling isn't always done properly. The Blacksmith Institute calls the incorrect dismantling of lead-acid batteries one of its 10 worst pollution problems for the globe.

Meanwhile, Toyota--which has sold two-thirds of the world's hybrid cars--has procedures in place for its dealers to properly dispose of used nickel-metal-hydride battery packs from cars like its Prius.

Lithium-ion packs just started to make their way into new cars last year--the first in the world was the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid--but we expect other automakers to do the same.

One bonus: While lead is a highly neurotoxic substance (the Mad Hatter was so named, for instance, because he was poisoned by the lead used in making felt hats), most lithium-ion battery packs are essentially non-toxic.

So until you end up driving--and then junking--an electric car,  be sure to recycle your auto battery as soon as you replace it.

Almost every place that you can buy a new battery will take the old one back for recycling. In fact, you may have to pay a "core charge" if you don't turn in the used battery.

[Scientific American via TreeHugger]

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Comments (23)
  1. I didn't know... but it's very good news - assuming the UK is as good as the US at recycling.

  2. Lithium-ion packs just started to make their way into new cars last year--the first in the world was the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid--but we expect other automakers to do the same.
    Umm, John are you sure you wanted to say that?

  3. @jeffhre: I'm not entirely sure what you're getting at here. Why would I not want to say that ???

  4. The Mad Hatter was actually poisoned by mercury, not lead. Mercury is the substance that was used in felt hats.

  5. Mad hatter's disease as it is known was caused by the use of mercury in hats, not lead although lead is still a neurotoxin, just less dangerous than mercury. The reason behind this is that mercury exists as a liquid at room temperature, so it is much easier to absorb through the skin or o breath the vapors.

  6. The Mad Hatter was poisoned by mercury, not lead.

  7. Richard's right. The worst thing is that the Mad Hatter part should have been the most easily verified part of the whole post. Ouch. As most people from the days of mercury thermometers and switches know, mercury is liquid in normal conditions and could help form a hat by pressing down on the felt into the right shape.

  8. I believe mad-hatters were named because of mercury poisoning, not lead

  9. Interesting article, but poorly research regarding lead toxicity. The mad hatter was poisoned by mercury, not lead. Both are heavy metals, and both can be neurotoxic but mercury is by far much more neurotoxic than lead - and is generally not used in batteries anymore.

  10. Get your facts straight! Why did you make up the story that the Mad Hatter was poisoned by lead? My 8 year old knows if was mercury not lead that caused the affliction.

  11. Um....how about water as the worlds most recycled product? The human race reprocessed and recycles million gallons a day!

  12. Steal an article and then embellish it with crap.
    I think I'll go back to reading SA and stay away from Green Car Reports.

  13. Interesting stuff, I honestly would have never guessed. It's funny because I literally just replaces my car battery a week or so ago.

  14. mercury, every school kid...
    lithium, california upstart '08; made the news?
    aluminum, cans... (by individual item weight?)
    what's credible?
    how many more attempts before this thing works?
    (got tired repeating myself!)

  15. Well of course it's the most recycled product. They last only 4-5 years and unless you bring in your old one, you'll get hit with a 'core' charge. You're old battery is a $20 coupon to be used on a new battery.

  16. @everyone: My error on mercury versus lead, now fixed. Happy to provide sources for the rest of the piece, however.

  17. @Randy Seifer: The recycle rate for aluminum cans is somewhere between 50 and 80 percent, depending on whose data you use. It has been falling steadily, and is far higher in the 11 states with container deposits, but is falling as the value of a nickel declines in real dollars.

  18. Too bad greencarreports failed some combination of chemistry, history, and factchecking. The term mad as a hatter comes from mercury poisoning not lead poisoning. Mercury was used in forming hats because the liquid could press down on the felt into the desired hat shape. Ouch!

  19. So let me get this straight....
    It's illegal to dump a car battery at your local waste station but it's the most recycled product. Seems to me that if it's illegal to dump, cost money in fines if you try to dump it that most people WOULD recycle it to not get fined or in trouble. Sorry but this isn't rocket science. Consumer electronics are going to be the same way in a few years if other states get behind Vermont and have the manufacturers covering disposal fees in the state.
    I'd like to see an article on voluntary recycling (things people actually recycle for benefit and not for fear of being in trouble/getting charged).

  20. @Blair: I'm surprised that your local waste station won't accept lead-acid car batteries. Mine will. Obviously local laws vary.

  21. John,
    I appreciate your quick response, thanks for setting me straight about aluminum cans (am old, data too i suppose), and lithium cells as I now recall were laptop design. As a kid in the Cub Scouts we played with mercury in the palms of our hands, and rubbed it on pennies so they resembled dimes. My friend's [high-end] Gilbert Chemistry Set had a radioactive isotope and included a Geiger-counter(!) The dopey '50s.. Good times!

  22. Last I heard, there were no Li-Ion battery recycling plants up and running. I hope this changes soon.
    I think the Lead-Acid battery story shows what is possible is good practice and governance. Lead Acid batteries are very toxic and very useful. Carefully managing this resource is critical to living a healthy life. It is just annoying that when things are not toxic (aluminum cans) we don't do as good a job as we could.

  23. Apparently Nissan is already testing this option for its used battery packs:


    I hope they eventually bring it to market. It could prove the ultimate accessory for those who power their EVs with solar panels.

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