March 20, 2022 0 comments
By Martina Rowley
As my small collection of used household batteries slowly grows, I’m thinking about rechargeable versus single-use batteries. Although I have a bunch of AA or AAA rechargeable batteries on the go, I still use non-rechargeable batteries for certain things when I need them quickly, like when my smoke detector starts signaling that it wants to be fed with a new pair. But I am gradually rebuilding my stock of rechargeable batteries, after the previous ones have gradually faded.
As with any item refillable and reusable multiple times, you pay more for the initial purchase and then pay much less or nothing at all to refill or refill that item dozens or hundreds of times before you have to dispose of it (appropriately, of cours). A prime example are refillable stainless steel water bottles versus pre-filled single-use plastic water bottles. I understand that for some people it is often easier to grab and carry the “regular” expendables without thinking about the annual cost or environmental impact of one over the other.
But consider these small household battery items. If you count how many everyday items in your home require batteries, what is your count? At first glance, I need AA or AAA batteries for the following items: my wireless computer keyboard and mouse, my TV remotes, my DVD player and my small electric heater, a flashlight, three smoke detectors, two pretty fairy lights, and I’m sure I forgot several more. Each of them needs at least two and sometimes three or four batteries. My battery number is at least 26. Plus a few D size batteries for my outdoor motion sensor light, and button cells in my kitchen and bathroom scale. I don’t use any lithium-ion batteries that I have access to (I know my laptop and cell phone have them, as do cordless power tools), but even these are available as rechargeable batteries .
What’s wrong with using single-use batteries, you might be wondering? It’s the same problem as anything that requires valuable natural resources or chemicals and energy to produce them, and is either wasted unnecessarily and pollutes our environment in landfills, or requires more energy and of materials to recycle it for a second or other purpose. If old batteries end up in a landfill, pollutants like cadmium, lead, lithium or sulfuric acid can contaminate our soils, groundwater and waterways, as well as ecosystems, and can even end up in our food chain. Unfortunately, around 30% of consumers still throw their used batteries in the household waste!
As for the higher cost of rechargeable batteries, their benefits often pay off, despite the initial sticker shock. A pack of four rechargeable AA batteries costs between $16.99 and $18.99 and a universal battery charger for two or four batteries (which is suitable for AA or AAA batteries) costs between $30 and $40. Typically, you can recoup that cost after about six recharges, and they have a lifespan of two to seven years.
Some research suggests they won’t always give you bang for your buck – apparently it depends on what you use them for. If you have items that use battery power like crazy, these are prime candidates for rechargeables, such as wireless game controllers, point-and-shoot cameras, and children’s electronic toys. An easy way to tell if the item has a moderate to high current draw is to change the batteries every 30-60 days. And if you need to change the batteries that often, using rechargeable batteries will definitely save you money in the long run.
Either way, you’ll be doing something good for the environment by helping to reduce the number of batteries that need to be recycled every year, which consume a lot of energy. According to Call2Recycle Canada Inc., Canada’s national consumer battery collection and recycling program, approximately 68% of residents recycled their old batteries for a total of nearly 3 million kilograms of household batteries collected, recycled and thus diverted of landfills in 2019. These numbers don’t differentiate between rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, but I’d bet the number of rechargeable batteries counted is miniscule in comparison.
Recycling batteries makes it possible to recover and reuse many useful materials. For example, case iron is recovered to make new products, manganese oxide inside alkaline batteries is processed in a furnace to recover zinc oxide, which can be used as an additive in many products , including plastics and ceramics. Cadmium recovered from nickel-cadmium batteries is used to make new batteries, and nickel is recovered to make steel.
So, depending on how you like to see it, using rechargeable batteries can be a win-win. Hopefully at some point they will become a normal and more obvious thing to do.