Your car’s battery may be reaching the end of its life, but it doesn’t have to end up in a landfill. Recycling used lead-acid batteries is both environmentally friendly and straightforward. In many states, regulations mandate that battery retailers accept these batteries, and recycling centers across the country are committed to preventing batteries from ending up in landfills.

Ever wondered what happens to your car battery after you drop it off for recycling? Read on to learn more.

Understanding Lead-Acid Batteries

Lead-acid batteries, commonly known as starting batteries, are the rechargeable batteries found in most cars. They power crucial components, including the ignition system and electrical functions. Remarkably, 99% of rechargeable lead-acid batteries are recycled, making them one of the most recycled consumer products in the United States.

To grasp how lead-acid batteries are processed during recycling, it’s helpful to understand their components. A typical 12-volt lead-acid battery comprises:

  • A positive plate coated with lead dioxide
  • A negative plate made of sponge lead
  • A separator, typically a micro-porous polyethylene synthetic material
  • Liquid electrolyte composed of water and sulfuric acid
  • A polypropylene container

When a battery cycles from a charged state to a discharged state, it releases energy and is recharged by the alternator. While numerous factors can affect a battery’s lifespan, an average car battery should last about six years. However, that’s not the end of the road for your battery.

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Car Battery Recycling: Step by Step

Before the battery recycling process begins, the battery is fully charged and undergoes comprehensive testing to determine if it can be refurbished. If a battery is still viable, it goes through a refurbishment process and is returned in pristine condition.

For batteries that can’t be refurbished, the recycling process commences:

Step 1: Sorting Lead-acid batteries are distinct from other battery types, such as alkaline or lithium-ion batteries, each requiring a unique recycling process. Lithium-ion batteries, in particular, pose fire hazards if not handled properly.

Step 2: Separating Components After sorting, lead-acid batteries are processed by machines with rotating hammers that break them into small pieces. A screen filters out the battery acid before metal and plastic components proceed further. These components are submerged in a tank of water. The metal sinks while the plastic floats. The plastic is separated, leaving three components: battery acid, metal, and plastic. Every part of the battery is recyclable.

  • Battery Acid: Using a chemical compound, the acid is neutralized and transformed into water. Before being released into the sewer system, the water is purified and tested to meet clean water standards. Battery acid may also be converted into sodium sulfate, useful in various manufacturing processes, such as glass and textiles.
  • Plastic: The plastic is washed, dried, and sent to a recycling plant, where it is melted and formed into plastic pellets.
  • Lead: The metal pieces are melted in a furnace for up to 10 hours, resulting in liquid lead. Lighter metals rise to the surface and are removed. The molten lead is purified and poured into bar-shaped molds.
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Step 3: Back to the Start Recycled plastic pellets and lead can be remelted to create new car batteries, starting the cycle anew. A single lead bar contains enough lead to produce up to three new batteries.

Not Ready to Recycle? Refurbish Batteries with remaining life are fully charged and tested to assess refurbishment viability. If a battery qualifies for refurbishment, it is repaired and rebuilt on-site, undergoing a thorough cleaning of terminals and casings before being returned in like-new condition.