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Battery recycling is now mandatory, and expanded programs are on the way

Firefighters hose down a smoking, burnt-out semi-truck's trailer full of garbage. The walls are scorched.
Susan Alexander
/
Courtesy
Firefighters tame a fire likely caused by a lithium-ion battery at Stowe Transfer Station in 2023. Vermont's haulers and processing centers have seen fires, some believed to be a result of near-ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries.

You probably have some old batteries lying around the house. You might even have a drawer full of them. What you may not know is that almost all of them can be recycled — for free — in Vermont. And that program is expanding.

Ten years ago, Vermont became the first state to require manufacturers to fund the recycling of single-use batteries. While larger batteries, particularly the lead-acid batteries used in cars, have had manufacturer-funded recycling programs for decades, that was not the case for the smaller batteries used in everyday electronics. When the law went into effect in 2016, the change was immediate and massive: the weight of single-use batteries collected was 19 times higher in 2016 than 2015.

But a lot has changed in the past decade, including a massive rise in the prevalence of rechargeable batteries. Act 152, a new law signed by Gov. Phil Scott in May, updates the state’s battery stewardship program to increase the types of batteries that can be recycled and makes it illegal to dump them in a landfill.

What the law changes

Most of Act 152’s changes don’t directly affect consumers, but there are some to take note of.

As of July 1, 2024, disposing of single-use and rechargeable batteries in landfills is illegal. Previously, only the disposal of lead-acid, nickel cadmium and mercury oxide batteries was illegal. All batteries will need to be delivered to a waste collection center, which includes some retailers.

Additionally, on Jan. 1, 2026, the maximum weight of batteries to be recycled will increase from 4.4 pounds to 25 pounds. That means you’ll be able to bring batteries in things like power tools and e-bikes to a processing center, but not the much larger ones in electric vehicles and homes — for those batteries, you'll still need to contact the manufacturer to see how they can be recycled.

That’s because disposing of batteries by placing them in a trash or recycling bin is dangerous, for waste workers and emergency responders alike.

‘Completely lost to fire’

Lithium-ion batteries, the most popular form of rechargeable battery, can now be found in everything from cellphones to power tools to electric cars. But with their immense utility comes danger — improperly charged, damaged or defective lithium-ion batteries can catch fire and explode.

In 2018, a lithium-ion battery smoldered and caught fire at the Chittenden Solid Waste District Material Recovery Facility in Williston, which processes over half of the recyclables in the state.

“Seventy percent of what we have on the floors is fiber or cardboard in paper,” said Jen Holliday, director of public policy and communications for Chittenden Solid Waste District. “And so [the fire] ran away pretty quickly.”

There was nobody in the MRF at the time, but an employee next door saw the smoke and called the fire department, Holliday said. Ultimately, only a portion of the roof and a side wall were destroyed.

But this was not a one-off incident.

“The staff there find or pick out lithium batteries all the time, like every single day, and they see a smoldering battery several times a week,” said Holliday, who also chairs the Vermont Product Stewardship Council, which represents the state’s 16 waste management districts. “So the potential is there, and MRFs across the country have been completely lost to fire for that reason.”

That’s one of the reasons for the new law. In testimony to lawmakers, Holliday pointed to an EPA report noting a 3,000% increase in lithium-ion battery fires at waste management facilities nationwide between 2013 and 2020, from two cases to 65. And that’s likely a massive undercount, as small fires often go unreported and it can be difficult to determine the exact cause of a large fire.

“Batteries, especially rechargeable batteries, have been responsible for burning recycling facilities to the ground in other states, causing multimillion dollars of damage, and endangering first responders,” said Josh Kelly, solid waste program manager for the Department of Environmental Conservation. “So it’s really important to get these batteries separate from the waste stream and into a safe collection system.”

A new source of funding

Batteries are part of a statewide product stewardship program, which requires manufacturers to plan and pay for the recycling or disposal of certain hazardous products; this is called extended producer responsibility. Mercury-containing light bulbs, mercury thermometers, paint and electronics also have product stewardship programs in the state.

Under the 2014 law, single-use battery manufacturers must follow the terms of a stewardship organization, which in Vermont is Call2Recycle, to fund the recycling of single-use batteries. Among other things, that involves tracking the amount of batteries they sell by weight and paying a fee based on the weight of sold batteries to cover the cost of recycling.

Call2Recycle also offers recycling for rechargeable batteries, which is why most collection stations offer recycling for smaller rechargeable batteries, including cellphones. But this is paid for by the waste management districts, rather than manufacturers.

Under the new law, manufacturers of rechargeable batteries up to 25 pounds and 2,000 watt hours must register with and pay into Call2Recycle’s stewardship plan. The law also adds manufacturers of products packaged with removable batteries to join the program — previously they were exempt. Products with batteries that are not easily removable are still exempt from the law.

Manufacturers who don’t register with Call2Recycle (or start their own stewardship program, though no company has done this) are not legally allowed to sell batteries in Vermont, with some exemptions.

The additional funding from expanding the law lifts the cost burden away from waste management districts, which are themselves funded by Vermonters in the form of fees, surcharges, and in some towns, taxes.

That’s especially helpful for recycling larger batteries, said Corey Raynor, outreach coordinator of the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste Management District. It’s expensive to ship and dispose of lithium batteries because they’re dangerous, and it’s even more expensive if they’re defective. Bigger batteries can cause bigger fires, necessitating more precautions.

As a result, the district can’t afford to ship the sorts of lithium batteries that power lawn mowers and e-bikes. In 2026, the manufacturers will cover the cost of recycling instead of the consumer.

“Bikes, power tools, things like that, anything over 300 watt hours, we can’t take them because it’s way, way too expensive,” Corey Raynor, outreach coordinator of the Northeast Kingdom Solid Waste Management District, said. “I'm overjoyed the state has extended [the battery stewardship program] to include some of those higher watt batteries, because they're just incredibly expensive to recycle right now.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message. Or contact the reporter directly at corey.dockser@vermontpublic.org.

Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.