by David Goldstein
‘Tis the season for battery disposal;
Electronic gifts will soon be immobile.
Lively and loud on the holidays,
If left on, soon nobody plays.
Recharge to prevent this waste,
Reuse rather than replace.
Electronic gifts given to you or your family this season might need batteries, and you are probably aware of the obvious benefits of rechargeable batteries. But before you buy batteries, ask yourself a question: Are you ready to commit to recharging?
According to a study posted on Yale University’s Climate Connections website (yaleclimateconections.org), “If it [a rechargeable battery] is used only a few times and then thrown away, its [environmental] impact is worse than a disposable.”
Rechargeables are made from more toxic materials, which can be more harmful than disposables unless recycled, according to Professor Mario Grosso, who is quoted in the university’s full study, “Life cycle assessment of consumption choices: a comparison between disposable and rechargeable household batteries.” The study, published three years ago in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, concluded 50 charge cycles are needed to make up for most areas of greater potential impact from nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries in comparison to alkaline batteries, the two most common choices by consumers.
The bottom line is this: Rechargeables are better for the environment, but only if users are dedicated to using them regularly instead of disposables and recycling when done. You might have good intentions buying rechargeable batteries, but focusing only on a good feeling at the moment of purchase, rather than the commitment you will need from yourself and your family, can be counter-productive.
The economic differences between disposable and reusable batteries provide a clear parallel to the environmental differences. Rechargeable batteries are less expensive, but only if they are used regularly.
According to Francisco Reyes and Eric Bates, representatives at Batteries Plus in Camarillo and Ventura, a 36 pack of AA alkaline batteries costs $17.99. That is about 50 cents per battery. A four pack of nickel metal hydride rechargeable batteries costs $13.99, which is about $3.50 per battery. Consistent with data from the Yale study, Reyes and Bates claim nickel metal hydride batteries can be recharged 500 to 1,000 times.
Simply dividing $3.50 by 500 charges could lead you to conclude a rechargeable battery’s effective cost for comparison is less than a penny. However, storage time and long periods without use diminish the number of recharge cycles possible; recharges do not last as long as the initial charge of a disposable. Also, add to rechargeables the cost of the charger. Batteries Plus stores charge $24.99 for a four-slot recharger, which comes with a set of two AA batteries, and $64.99 for an eight-slot charger with faster recharge times.
These rechargers, made for nickel metal hydride batteries, can also be used for nickel cadmium batteries, but not for lithium batteries. Lithium batteries bought directly by consumers are almost always single-use disposable, but these batteries also last five times as long as alkaline batteries, according to Bates.
Long-charge-holding lithium-ion batteries also come in a rechargeable variety, but these have a different voltage than other rechargeable batteries, so they cannot be recharged in a typical recharger. More importantly, although lithium ion batteries come in standard sizes, most rechargeable lithium ion batteries are embedded in solar lights, plug-in electronics, or other high-power applications and should not be removed for charging.
Batteries are not accepted through local curbside recycling programs nor in curbside disposal carts, but large retail outlets selling rechargeable batteries in California are required by law to implement “take back” programs for rechargeable batteries. To find the recycling location nearest you, call 1-800-8-BATTERY, or visit www.call2recycle.org.
Battery collection containers can be obtained from Call2Recycle.com, and some organizations qualify for free recycling if the container is used for public drop-off of rechargeables exclusively. But if the container is used for all battery types, the charge is around $70, including shipping and recycling. Each container holds about 40 pounds of batteries. You can also order a container, along with prepaid shipping, from companies such as Big Green Box (877-461-2345) or Battery Solutions (800-852-8127).
Two recycling facilities and six household hazardous waste collection facilities in Ventura County accept batteries, as well as other items. Each facility, however, serves limited geographical areas, and periodic collection events at most locations require appointments.
David Goldstein is an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.
On the web:
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-016-1134-5 (life cycle assessment)