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What to do (and not do) with old batteries

Environmental Program Coordinator Adam Frederick with the Washington County Environmental Center in Woodbury holds two lithium ion batteries brought into the center for recycling. He said such rechargeable batteries contain toxic metals and should not be thrown out with the trash. Submitted photo

Maybe they're from decorations or new toys this holiday season. Or maybe they've been getting stashed for years in the ubiquitous junk drawer.

Batteries have a way of piling up around the house. Though some can be thrown away, others contain metals that are potentially dangerous to your health and the environment — and need extra care for disposal.

We asked Environmental Program Coordinator Adam Frederick at the Washington County Environmental Center in Woodbury to explain the different types of batteries, how to safely handle them and why some some need to be taken in instead of going out with the trash.

Batteries come in all shapes and sizes — what are the differences and which ones are OK to throw away?

There are two types of batteries: single-use and rechargeable. Eighty percent of all single-use batteries are alkaline, which are safe to place in the trash. Single-use lithium or button batteries contain toxic metals and should not go in the trash. Take them to the Washington County Environmental Center for recycling.

Any battery that is rechargeable should be properly recycled — either at the Environmental Center or a participating retailer.

What's wrong with throwing away rechargeable batteries?

Rechargeable batteries are categorized by the metal they use; they include nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, lithium ion or sealed lead acid. All rechargeable batteries contain toxic metals which pose a threat to human health and the environment when batteries are improperly disposed.

Lithium batteries can also cause fires if they are ruptured or damaged. Think laptops, cellphones or those hover boards that were popular a few years ago. If a lithium battery is damaged, the lithium will react with the atmosphere and burn at very high temperatures. If you have a damaged or ruptured rechargeable battery, pack it separately from other waste and bring it to the Environmental Center.

I found a few AAs with white crusty stuff. What is this and is it harmful?

If it's an alkaline battery, it is most likely potassium carbonate. Potassium carbonate forms when a leaky battery slowly discharges over time. Sometimes a potassium hydroxide leaks out and reacts with the carbon dioxide in the air to make potassium carbonate salt. The white powder is not dangerous but any remaining potassium hydroxide is very basic (high pH) and should not be handled. If it's an alkaline battery, place it in the trash. If not, bring it to the Environmental Center.

How about car batteries? What's the safe way to handle and dispose of them?

Car batteries contain lead and sulfuric acid and must be recycled properly. By law, auto battery retailers must take back your old battery free of charge. Car batteries can also be taken to the Environmental Center.

Incidentally, the white stuff on a car battery terminal is lead sulfide and is toxic, so be careful not to get any on yourself when transporting. Place the battery in a cardboard box for transportation.

Please note that I am referring to the battery used to start and run non-hybrid vehicles. Hybrid batteries are a different matter and are most often recycled through your car dealer or mechanic. Hybrid batteries are not accepted at the Environmental Center.

What are some other household items that should be brought to a waste facility instead of going into the trash?

At the Washington County Environmental Center, we accept all household chemicals, including automobile fluids, paints, stains, aerosol cans, pesticides and household cleaners. We also accept household electronics such as TVs, computers and cellphones. Visit www.co.washington.mn.us/envirocenter for a full list of accepted items.

This month, we launched a new organics drop-off program. Residents are now able to drop off food scraps, paper towels and more at the Environmental Center. Known as "organics," these materials can be recycled into compost, a valuable resource that improves soil and decreases the need for fertilizers. Sign up at www.co.washington.mn.us/organics and pick-up a free starter kit. Starter kits include a two-gallon kitchen pail and 10 compostable bags. Kits are available to Washington County residents only.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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