Batteries Continue to Light Up Recycling Facilities

Have you ever noticed that batteries are in many common items in our lives? Our phones, that birthday card that plays a song, the light up pen we got for free, or that cordless vacuum. These everyday items around the house contain batteries, which means that when it’s time to get rid of them when they break or are no longer usable, they must be disposed of in a special way for safety purposes. Batteries don’t belong in the recycle, compost, or garbage bins!

And yet, recycling facilities across the country are facing increased fires due to lithium batteries. The Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos has experienced 47 fires since the 2016 four-alarm fire that caused $6.8 million in damages and four-and-a-half months of closure that put 70 employees on furlough. 95% or 45 of the 47 fires, were caused by lithium batteries. RethinkWaste’s Executive Director, Joe La Mariana, spoke recently to VICE News about the impacts of the rise of gadgets and electric cars have had on the Shoreway facility. The top issue with battery-related fires are the safety risks these fires pose for facility workers and the machinery.

As a government agency, RethinkWaste is made up of 11 member agencies* that banded together in 1982 to handle their waste. Costs at the Shoreway facility ultimately trickle down to ratepayers, which is why proper handling of batteries is vital. Additionally, insurance policies play a role in this pressing issue. Before the fire, the Shoreway facility was served by one insurance company, which paid out the damages of the 2016 fire. Shortly after, the insurance company dropped Shoreway as a client because it was deemed too high of a risk, and now the facility relies on seven different insurance policies with premiums jumping from $180,000 per year to $1.5 million.

Residents and businesses can do their part in properly and responsibly handling their batteries. But the biggest influence in this issue are the manufacturers that continue to create a product while not being held responsible to manage the end life of their products. RethinkWaste is working with agencies across the state to change this and to hold manufacturers accountable. In an effort to ensure access to safe battery disposal and reduce fire risk, Senator Josh Newman and Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin introduced SB 1215 and AB 2440. These two mirrored bills, also known as the Responsible Battery Recycling Act, create a statewide collection and recycling program for batteries and battery-embedded products. Find the official press release here. We can all work together to raise awareness of this issue, and support legislation that aims to tackle the problem.

Find the full VICE News article here.

To find out more about how you can responsibly handle your used batteries, visit our battery page.

*Member agencies are: Belmont, Burlingame, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Hillsborough, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo, Unincorporated parts of San Mateo County, and West Bay Sanitary District.

Hazardous Waste 101 Webinar Follow-Up

RethinkWaste held a Hazardous Waste 101 Webinar on February 18, 2021 (National Battery Day). This page provides the webinar recording, presentation slides, links to more resources, and all of the questions (with answers) submitted by attendees. If you have additional questions, fill out the form at the bottom of the page.


Powerpoint Presentation

Household Hazardous Waste

Safe Home Cleaning

Webinar recording and live Q&A

Questions and Answers

1. What do I do with pressure treated wood?

Pressure treated wood is now classified as hazardous waste. To dispose of it, residents can bring it to the San Mateo County HHW facility for proper disposal. Set up on this acceptance should be happening soon. Check for updates on treated wood waste disposal on the County website.

2. How do I get battery collection in my apartment complex?

If you don’t see one at your location, ask your property manager or owner to get a bucket for your building(s) from Recology for free. Please note that only property managers/owners can request a bucket and coordinate pickups.

3. What is the history of National Battery Day?

We’re unsure of the exact origins of National Battery Day, but for us at RethinkWaste, the day is meant for raising awareness around battery hazards, risks, and proper disposal.

4. What happens to all the stuff that is recycled at the County HHW facility?

Depending on the item, some are recycled or reused and some are burned as fuel. Very little goes to the landfill.

5. How do I dispose of batteries that are in electric toothbrushes, smoke detectors, etc?

If you can’t remove the battery from the electric toothbrush, it is called an embedded battery which needs to be brought to the County HHW facility. Smoke detectors can sometimes be sent back to the manufacturer if they have a takeback program, or you can bring them to the Shoreway Public Recycling Center.

6. How to dispose of scrap lumber, not pressure treated, from household? 2×4 scraps, etc?

Scrap lumber can be brought to the Shoreway Environmental Center and will be classified as construction and demolition debris. There may be a fee associated with drop off. For pricing information, click here.

7. Are rechargeable battery packs (such as ones used for phones) allowed to be disposed of curbside with other batteries?

Yes, you can place these batteries in a bag with other batteries and place on top of your black garbage cart on collection day. Double check if you need to tape these batteries if they are lithium-ion.

8. Where can we recycle portable tools that have a rechargeable battery?

These can also be brought to the Shoreway Public Recycling Center, hardware stores like Home Depot, or if you live in a single-family household, you can put them in a zip-top bag and place on top of your garbage cart for your regular collection day. If you live in an apartment or condo with an orange battery bucket, you can place these batteries in there as well.

9. How do I dispose of empty red plastic gas containers?

If this container has a chasing arrows symbol with a number #1-7, it can go into the recycling. If no chasing arrow, it should go in the garbage.



10. Do you have to use specifically distilled white vinegar for mold? Can you use other types of vinegar?

Other vinegars like apple cider vinegar have a stronger scent, so we haven’t tried cleaning with it. But distilled white vinegar usually comes in larger sizes, is cheaper, and works well in cleaning.

11. How do you wash windows?

Diluted vinegar with water, and a microfiber cloth will clean up grime and fingerprints on the inside and outside of windows.

12. Why use microfiber cloths?

Microfiber cloths catch dirt and dust, and dry quickly. Remember to hang dry microfiber cloths after washing and avoid putting them in the dryer.

If you have more questions, fill out the form below!

Contact Form

Dispose Of These Five Unique Items Properly

We try our best to sort our waste carefully: food scraps, food-soiled paper, and landscape materials in the green cart, clean paper and cardboard, metal cans, plastic containers and glass bottles in the blue cart, and most other objects in the black cart. But…what about those objects that don’t belong in any of the carts? Fear not! Let’s talk about how to properly dispose of five common items that don’t belong in your waste carts and how you can dispose of them responsibly.

1. Batteries

Batteries are abundant—they’re in our phones, children’s toys, even those singing holiday cards! From small to large, NO battery belongs in any of your carts. When put into the garbage and buried in landfills, heavy metals from batteries pool at the bottom of the landfill’s plastic liner. If that “garbage juice” is accidently released into the environment, all of those heavy metals contaminate soil and water. Batteries shouldn’t be put into the recycling either! Batteries that are wrongly put into the recycling are dangerous for waste sorting facilities such as our Shoreway Environmental Center. Batteries pose a significant fire hazard that can cause serious risk to employees and costly damage.

So, how should batteries be disposed of? It’s simple!

For single-family households, tape up the ends of your old batteries, and collect them in a clear, zip-top bag. When the bag is full, place it on top of your black garbage cart on your regular collection day.

For apartments/condominiums, look for an orange battery bucket in the major hubs of your complex (front office, clubhouse, etc.). If you don’t have a battery bucket, reach out to management about acquiring one from Recology. Otherwise, batteries can always be dropped off free of charge at the Shoreway Public Recycling Center.

2. Electronics

Like batteries, electronic devices also contain heavy metals that can cause contamination in our environment. Because of this, electronics do not belong in waste carts either. Electronic waste (old/defunct televisions, computers, phones, VCR’s, and even microwaves!) can be taken to the Shoreway Public Recycling Center for proper disposal—also free of charge.

3. Unwanted or expired medicine

Unwanted or expired medicine should never be thrown into the garbage or flushed down the toilet, as both of these have the potential to harm people and the environment. Return unwanted or expired medicine to local pharmacies and some police stations for the safest disposal! Luckily for us, San Mateo County has over 50 medicine disposal locations available to residents, including 31 in the RethinkWaste service area. To find locations nearest you, visit the San Mateo County Health website.

4. Motor oil and filters

Motor oil is a toxic substance that should never be thrown into the garbage or put down a drain for disposal, and can be collected and burned for fuel use or cleaned to be new oil! If poured down a drain, “one gallon of motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of freshwater” (Earth911). Motor oil should be placed in a clear plastic container, like a milk jug, and placed next to your blue recycling cart for pickup on your regular collection day. Contact Recology to request up to five one-gallon jugs for your used motor oil. Additionally, used oil filters can be placed in a clear, zip-top bag and put next to your blue recycling cart for collection. For those who don’t reside in single-family households, motor oil and used oil filters can always be dropped off at the Shoreway Public Recycling Center for disposal—free of charge!

5. Aerosol cans

Aerosol cans are yet another tricky item. They’re typically made of metal, so many folks mistakenly think these cans are recyclable. However, the design of the cans make it hard to completely empty, and the pressurization can cause harm when crushed in a recycling facility if not completely empty. Aerosol cans like spray paint, hairspray, and air fresheners (no food grade cans, like cooking spray), are accepted through San Mateo County’s Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Program. County residents can schedule a free HHW drop-off appointment at www.smchealth.org.

Reminder that the Shoreway Public Recycling Center in San Carlos is open to residents for free drop-off, with COVID-19 safety precautions. Face masks must be worn while at the facility. Go here for a full list of what is accepted the Public Recycling Center.

Learn more about items accepted through San Mateo County’s Household Hazardous Waste program.

For more information on how to dispose of other tricky items, visit recyclestuff.org.

Lithium batteries are a risk when mismanaged

It’s nearly impossible to scan a modern home and not spot electronic devices with lithium-based batteries. From smartphones, watches and fitness trackers, to toothbrushes and toys, they are increasingly the power source of choice. Those batteries are also increasingly found in the waste stream where they can create significant hazards.

“There’s definitely a correlation in the rise of these batteries showing up in the waste stream and catastrophic fires occurring,” Jesse Maxwell, the Solid Waste Association of North America’s (SWANA) advocacy and safety manager, told Waste Dive.

Read the full story by Katie Pyzyk in Waste Dive here.

Concerns about lithium-ion batteries are unfortunately nothing new for RethinkWaste. In September 2016, our recycling facility at the Shoreway Environmental Center suffered a catastrophic fire that was likely caused by a  lithium-ion battery. Thankfully, all staff were evacuated safely, but it shut down our facility for four months and cost over $8.5 million in damages to our recycling sorting equipment.

This is why it’s important to safely and properly handle used batteries, including taping the ends of lithium batteries before recycling. Find out how and where you can dispose of your household batteries at rethinkwaste.org/batteries.

Are you Disposing Your Batteries Properly?

Do you have a laptop, sneakers that light up or a key fob at home? Do you know all these items contain batteries? When these items no longer work, you need to dispose of them responsibly and not toss them in any of your carts or bins!

Batteries are a type of hazardous waste containing toxic chemicals, that when tossed in the trash or recycling can cause a lot of harm to the environment and recycling facilities.  In the garbage, batteries can leach chemicals into the landfill and in the recycling, they can be crushed by sorting machines and potentially cause a fire. That’s exactly what happened at our Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos. On September 7, 2016, our recycling facility suffered a catastrophic fire that caused nearly $8.5 million in damages and all due to a lithium-ion battery.

So little, yet so destructive!

Next time you have a device that no longer works, check to see if it has a battery in it and dispose responsibly. There are lots of options!

Residents in single-family homes can place bagged batteries in a clear zip-top bag and place ON TOP of the black garbage cart on collection day. Residents in apartments or condos can see if they have an orange bucket and placed bagged batteries in there. You can also bring batteries to the Shoreway Environmental Center’s Public Recycling Center for free or you can drop off batteries at a dozen locations in the RethinkWaste service area. Get more information about the above services here.

Important change made to battery disposal on collection day

As of Sept. 3, a program allowing residents of local single-family households or in apartment buildings with four units or less to dispose of household batteries and cellphones on collection day re-launched with an important change.

Instead of putting batteries and cellphones into clear zip-top bags and placing them on the blue cart, which is the recycling cart, the program now requires residents to place them on the black cart, or the trash cart.

It’s an important safety change involving a local recycling center.

“Currently, the RethinkWaste-owned Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos finds on average 13 batteries per hour on the recycling sort line,” officials said. “Batteries are helpful in everyday life, but when batteries are improperly disposed of and end up in a facility with lots of heavy equipment, this can lead to a bad combination. On September 7, 2016, the Shoreway Environmental Center experienced a four-alarm fire that was likely called by a lithium-ion battery. Thankfully all staff were evacuated safely, but it cost $8.5 million in damages.”

Read the full story on Climate Online Redwood City here.