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Disposable batteries vs Rechargeable batteries

a lot of disposable batteries ready for recycling
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Electronical gifts and batteries are part of our lives now and they are either fun or useful or both. But there is a sobering fact behind all these electronic equipment is the batteries that are used to power them. If they come with a rechargeable unit of their own, brilliant – like your mobile phones or robotic hoovers. If they run on direct power source, even better as there is 1 less thing that could go wrong. Things like your smoke alarm or heating thermostats could run on direct power. But if they take batteries please read on.

There are different types of batteries available on the market. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_battery_types

The main ones we encounter on a day-to-day basis are generally called Alkaline batteries or Primary cell batteries or non-rechargeable batteries.

Why are alkaline batteries so bad?

Disposable batteries 🔋 of any kind are terrible for the environment. They are made with toxic chemicals and metals and they have such a big impact on the environment 🌏throughout their life cycle. An Australian study (Parson, 2007) investigated “the environmental impact of disposable versus rechargeable batteries for consumer use”. They looked at aspects such as materials and processes used in the production but interestingly also included further factors such as the transport to the shops (e.g. in the study batteries came from China), energy costs for wholesale and retail etc., thus a range of factors that contribute to the overall environmental impact, plus the disposal of the batteries.

Picture of different batteries with reusable battery in the middle.
Photo by Thomas B. from Pixabay

As you might guess, the results were in favour of rechargeable batteries 🔋 with the assumption that these will be used many times. The main eco-cost for disposable batteries comes from it’s supply chain. According to the Parson, 2007 report, “For the disposable alkaline batteries the dominant impacts came from the electrical energy used for wholesaling and retailing the batteries, followed by the production of the batteries”. Add to this the fact that 48% of all (rechargeable and disposable) batteries we buy isn’t recycled ♻. To place it in context, laid end-to-end the batteries sold in the UK would reach from the UK to Australia and back again say “recycle-more.co.uk

Another study by UniRoss (a rechargeable battery manufacturer) concluded that “Rechargeable batteries: up to 32 times less impact on the environment than disposable batteries” The UNIROSS study focuses on 11 indicators of potential impacts on the environment 🌾. The challenge of these indicators is to express the environmental impact of the product throughout its life cycle 🔄. You can see the study conclusions here: http://uniross.co.za/bio_ademeSurvey.html

Is it worth getting NiMh batteries ?

Rechargeable batteries are also called secondary cell batteries or NiMh batteries. The cost of rechargeable batteries is high initially as you need to invest in the batteries and charging unit. But it greatly reduces as you keep using it. A study by Mintel (market research survey company) in 2006 calculated that 500 disposable AA batteries cost £380 💰, whereas a charger and 2 batteries costs less than £10 and can be recharged approximately 500 times 💹. Since 2006, the costs have come down further for rechargeable batteries. So, it’s definitely worth investing.

Issues around switching to rechargeable batteries

All problems in this world of disposable consumerism comes with a But. The “but” in this case is that not all equipment will take rechargeable batteries. You need to check the manufacturer’s instructions on what they the equipment can use and can’t use. If they haven’t said it, it means it can take. But if it says explicitly not use to it, then please don’t. In this case, look at alternative manufacturers who don’t impose this limitation. It is a limitation in most cases and it’s usually in the budget items.

Did you also know that poorly designed devices will only use 50% of your disposable battery charge 🔋 and then it stops working. So, we think the battery is dead and throw it out.

But here’s something my father taught me – there is something called a “Battery checker”. This device will tell you if there is any charge left in your battery before you throw it out. If there is any power left, there might be other devices in your home that will be able to use it – usually TV remote controls can operate on batteries with small amount of charge in my experience.

Battery checker to check power left.
Photo source: WUJUN Analogue battery tester

So what can we do as a consumer:

  1. Invest in rechargeable batteries and a charging unit. Make sure you buy recharging units which power off automatically when the batteries reach full charge.
  2. The next time your equipment needs a change of batteries – replace them with rechargeable batteries.
  3. Recycle your dead batteries. Please do make sure they are dead before you throw them in the recycle bin.
  4. Campaign for manufacturers to design equipment that can work with rechargeable batteries.
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