Recycling batteries

Recycling batteries is one of the most important recycling practices. Recycling glass or paper is essential, due to the cost efficiency or forest protection. In addition to the reasons listed above, recycling batteries has one more crucial reason: batteries contain toxic chemicals. Releasing these chemicals into the environment (for example, when batteries end up in a landfill) can cause significant water and soil pollution. Scientific studies [1] have demonstrated that mercury, cadmium and lead of the batteries present the major environmental problems.


How do batteries work?

A battery stores energy in the form of chemical energy and transforms this chemical energy into electricity, when connected to an electrical circuit. An electrical circuit is basically a flow of electrons in one direction, or a flow of positive ions in the opposite direction. These charges (electrons or ions) flow through a conductive path, for example, a wire. Such a wire thus forms an electric circuit.

Any battery consists of three main parts: a cathode (+), and anode (-) and an electrolyte to separate them. When the battery is not connected to an electrical circuit, the electrolyte prevents cathode and anode from exchanging charges. However, when we install a battery into a circuit, there is an external path – this circuit – following which electrons can reach the cathode. Therefore, an electrical current starts flowing through the circuit. The chemical reactions in the battery define the amount of charges this battery can produce. Some batteries – the disposable ones – can only transform chemical energy into electrical energy. Therefore, they can only used once. Other batteries – rechargeable – also work in an opposite direction, when electrical energy from an external source can be transformed back into chemical energy. Therefore, such batteries are multiple-use, and are thus better for the environment.

Recycling process

Currently, all types of batteries can be recycled. Most of them are even 100% recyclable, meaning every part of the used battery ends up as a part of a new product (usually a battery as well). Some batteries – like car batteries – always end up at a recycling facility, due to the fact that recycling is much more energy- and cost-efficient. But the batteries that we use in our everyday life – for example, in a TV remote – still often finish their life cycle in a landfill.

Lead battery recycling

Let us briefly describe the procedure of battery recycling on an example of lead acid batteries. After their arrival at a recycling facility, the batteries are crashed into small pieces. The next step is to separate the different components of these small pieces. To do that, battery pieces undergo a special procedure, as a result of which lead and other heavy metals fall to the bottom of a special vat, while the plastic pieces float. Therefore, there are now three separate material components, all separated from each other: lead and other metals, plastic and acid.

The lead pieces proceed to hot furnaces, where they melt. When the lead melts, impurities float on its surface, which allows to clean the lead from these impurities. The cleaned lead then goes back to battery manufacturers. Plastic pieces also end up back at the battery manufacturer, to become parts of new batteries again. Old battery acid mostly undergoes a neutralization procedure, as a result of which it turns into water.

You can find more detailed information about recycling procedures for this and all the other battery types here.

[1]  Bernardes, A. M.; Espinosa, D. C. R.; Tenorio, J. A. S. “Recycling of batteries: a review of current processes and technologies”. Journal of Power Sources130 (1–2): 291–298. doi:10.1016/j.jpowsour.2003.12.026.

Aluminium recycling

Aluminium is probably the easiest material to recycle. Recycling aluminium is even easier than recycling glass! The whole process basically implies just re-melting the metal. It can then be further used to manufacture new products. Recycling is, therefore, much less energy-consuming than creating new material from scratch.

Creating new aluminium requires conducting a process called electrolysis of aluminium oxide (Al2O3). Electrolysis uses electricity to catalyze chemical reactions that would not happen under normal conditions. Apart from that, someone first has to refine aluminium oxide from the natural material – bauxite. Bauxite, which is the most important ore of aluminium, only contains from 30% to 60% of it. The whole procedure is rather cumbersome and expensive. On the other hand, recycling aluminium requires only 5% of the energy used to make it from the raw ore. For this reason not only conscious consumers, but also profit-oriented corporations are trying their best to enforce separate collection of aluminium and its consequent recycling.

aluminium cans


Due to the advantages presented above, aluminium recycling is one of the oldest recycling practices. The first attempts to recycle this metal appeared as early as in the 1900’s. The practice became even more wide-spread during World War II. However, recycling reached its peak popularity in 1960’s, when beverage cans appeared on the counters. Up to this day, cans for various drinks are the most popular usage of aluminium. Consequently, they are also the most recycled.

Just like glass, aluminium does not deteriorate during recycling, therefore, it can be recycled indefinitely. The quality of the recycled product will not be any worse than that of the initial product. Therefore, recycled metal has the same usage as the newly manufactured one: beverage cans, bicycle tires, computers, kitchen ware and many other products which require a light strong material. Moreover, aluminium is a key component of some computer hardware and various types of wiring, due to its high thermal conductivity.

Aluminium recycling process

As with any other recycling process, the first stage of it is a consumer throwing his beverage can or chocolate foil into a recycling bin. On the next stage that aluminium is collected and taken to a recycling plant, where it is cleaned and sorted. Special machines usually cut beverage cans into small pieces. This helps to decrease the volume they occupy, and also makes it easier for separating machines.Usually cleaning the metal from inks and admixtures happens during the melting stage, however, some products require additional cleaning.

At the next stage the pieces turn into aluminium blocks. This helps to prevent oxidation during the melting stage, as aluminium easily turns back into its oxide, when exposed to oxygen. The resulting blocks then undergo spectroscopic analysis. As a result of this analysis and according to the desired goal admixtures like copper or zinc may find their way into the mixture. Only at this stage the substance proceeds into the furnace, where it finally melts.In case of beverage cans the melted mass turns into big blocks – ingots – each consisting of approximately 2 million cans. Special machines subsequently roll the ingots out, giving them additional flexibility and strength. The obtained aluminium sheets are ready for creating new drink cans, food packaging and, most importantly, chocolate wrapping!

Glass recycling

The biggest advantage of recycling glass – the quality of the material does not degrade, no matter how many times you recycle it. This is very unlike plastic or paper. Glass is 100% recyclable, since it does not degrade if used normally. Glass waste must be separated by its chemical composition – this is usually done at the recycling facility. Many recyclers prefer to also separate it by color, as the material retains its color after post-production. The most common colors are – transparent (or colorless), green and brown.

glass bottles

Advantages of glass recycling

  • Glass can be recycled infinitely.  Its structure does not deteriorate during the recycling process. Moreover, the process itself is relatively simple.
  • Crashed glass ready to be remelted and reused is called “cullet”. Bottles and jast that we use in our everyday life can contain as much as 80% of “cullet”. This makes the process of recycling glass very effective.
  • Recycling prevents huge releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Recycling 1000 kg of glass prevents the release of 315 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere, according to the researchers.
  • There is no shortage of the required natural materials to produce glass – indeed sand, which is the main ingredient, is abundant. However, we do obtain these materials from the environment, therefore, it is better to avoid such an impact altogether. Using 1 kg of recycled glass preserves abut 1.2 kg of raw environmental materials.
  • Recycling also reduces the amount of landfill waste. Despite the fact that glass is not toxic and does not pose a direct threat to the environment, it will also stay in the environment almost forever.
  • One of the indirect advantages of recycling is – it makes people more conscious about their choices. Recycling glass is relatively easy, many countries have designated collection containers. Moreover, consumers often get a small refund for bringing the used bottles back to the retailers. This makes glass recycling even more widespread. Taking part in such environmentally friendly activities makes people think about their impact on the world around them, which indirectly influences various other aspects of life, making us more sustainable.

Recycling procedure

The first stage of any recycling process depends on the consumer. More specifically, the consumers bring their used glass containers to the recycling containers, curbside bins, etc. Then, recycling facilities collect this deposited glass, bring it to the facility and divide it by type (and/or color). The same recycling facilities usually separate it from various contaminants – paper stickers, corks or food leftovers. The recycling facility subsequently crashes glass and sells the resulting “cullet” to the manufacturers. The container manufacturers melt the “cullet” and in some cases add up to 20% of raw materials (melted sand) to it. The resulting mixture is ready for producing new glass bottles and jars. The manufacturer then sells these containers to food and drink suppliers, who finally fill them up with almost any substance you can think of.

You can find some more details about recycling glass in the video below.. The video focuses on recycling in the UK, however, the procedure is pretty similar in other countries. The video also demonstrates just how easy the process actually is!

Paper recycling

Paper is the most recycled material in the world. We recycle more paper than plastic, glass and aluminum combined. In some countries, where recycling is still not very wide-spread, people still recycle paper. Recycling 1 kilogram of white (printing or copier) paper saves slightly more than 2 kilograms of wood. At the same time recycling 1 kg of gray paper (i.e. paper used for printing newspapers) saves about 1 kg of wood. On many sources you can find a relation of kilograms of recycled paper with the amount of saved trees. This comparison is, however, rather meaningful. Tree sizes vary significantly, therefore, such a comparison can result in very different outcomes. It has, however, been estimated that recycling half of the paper currently used by humanity, would save around 81,000 km² of forestland [1].

Paper recycling

What can recycled paper turn into?

Have you ever heard the following phrase: “Paper has seven generations”? This phrase refers to the amount of times it can be recycled. The quality of paper is defined by the length of its fibers. The longer the fibers – the higher the quality (or grade). Usually, the more times the paper has undergone the recycling procedure – the shorter its fibers. Therefore, a general “rule of thumb” is: the grayer the paper – the more recycling cycles it has been through. For example, newspapers and paper-towels represent the lower grades, since they usually make use of recycled paper. White paper for the printers is, on the other hand, usually of the highest quality – not yet recycled at all. After five to seven recycling cycles, the fibers become too short to make new paper and addition of new fibers is necessary to create paper.

One of the most popular usages of recycled paper is pulp or molded fiber packaging. However, various other usages of scrap or recycled paper exist. Among them the previously mentioned newspapers and paper towels, as well as egg cartons or grocery bags.

Recycling procedure.

The process of paper recycling consists of several stages.

  1. The first stage is paper collection. The biggest amount comes in a form of used paper from the consumers. However, paper trimmings from the manufactures also end up in the recycling process. Furthermore, some paper is discarded after it left the production site  but before it reaches the customer. That paper usually ends up collected for recycling as well.
  2. The second stage is sorting the paper according to its grade. As discussed above, the length of the fibers defines the grade of the paper.
  3. After sorting comes storing in the recycling facility or “recycling mill”.
  4. Consequently, some chemicals are added to the paper to remove the leftover admixtures. These admixtures can include aluminum, ink and other contaminants.
  5. Then special machines cut the paper into small pieces and heat these pieces up. This breaks paper down further into fibers. The resulting mixture has the name of pulp, or slurry. Dedicated screens then remove any impurities that may still be in the mixture. Then the mixture is cleaned, de-inked, bleached, and more water is added to it.




[1] EarthWorks Group. 1990. “The Recycler’s Handbook”. Berkeley, CA: The EarthWorks Press

Plastic recycling

Plastic Waste

Plastic materials are one of the most used materials in Europe. It is the most popular form of food-packaging worldwide. Apart from that obvious role, areas like agriculture, construction or car industry – all make use of some plastics. As a result of this extensive usage, in 2003 the Netherlands alone produced 1,2 million tons of plastic waste. That is a very big amount for a country with relatively small population – 17 million people – imagine the impact of Germany or the United States!

The biggest amount of plastic waste – approximately 45% – consists of household waste. That number is so high due to the fact that almost every food item purchased in a supermarket comes in a plastic package. Meat packages, cheese slices, butter packs, ready-made dishes – all are packed with ridiculous amounts of plastic. My favorite example is a typical lunch salad from a supermarket. Not only the whole package is plastic, but almost every ingredient has a separate compartment made of this non-biodegradable material!

Plastic package

Soft drink bottles, and packages like shampoos or shower gels form another enormous source of plastic waste worldwide. In many countries, where tap water is not safe to drink, this problem is even more urgent. As a result of bad quality of tap water people have to purchase big bottles of drinking water almost every day. Unfortunately, those countries are also the ones with very poor recycling policies.


The worst of it all – only about 5% of all the plastic waste is being recycled. Most of it ends up in huge land damps, or even worse, in the world’s ocean. There have been horrifying predictions of more plastic than fish in the ocean as soon as 2050. Plastic waste in the ocean has very sad consequences, which most people never even think about. Multiple reports show show large fish and turtles suffocating on carelessly thrown away plastic bags and packages. Even if such a package eventually breaks down in the sea water, it releases dangerous chemicals in the process. If we don’t think about the environment, we should at least think about ourselves. These chemicals are eventually consumed by various fish and may end up in the human food chain.

Buying less products with a one-time use packaging and, most of all, recycling, are the answers to those problems.

Plastic recycling practices

There are three most-popular recycling practices for plastic.

  • The first one consists of simply burning it down to produce energy. This is where most of the used plastic ends up. The method is, however, widely criticized due to the fact that the obtained energies are not compensating for the energies required for new plastic production. Moreover, the process results in releasing dangerous gases to the atmosphere.
  • A relatively new and still rare recycling procedure includes converting plastics into fuels and carbons.
  • Finally, a practice that should be way more wide-spread than it currently is – reusing plastics! It’s the most environmentally-friendly way of recycling plastics. The waste is collected, subsequently melted and further re-used to create new items – from single-use cutlery to children’s toys.

The bottom line is – everyone can contribute to a more sustainable society. Start today with buying a reusable water bottle and separating your waste!


If you would like to read more about the types of plastic and their utilization procedures, please check out this post.