Better batteries for the environment and your wallet

March 20, 2022   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

As my little collection of spent household batteries slowly grows again, I am thinking about rechargeable batteries versus single-use batteries. While I have a bunch of rechargeable AA or AAA batteries on the go, I do still use non-rechargeables for some things when I need them quickly, like when my smoke alarm starts beeping at me that it wants to be fed a fresh pair. But I am gradually rebuilding my stock of rechargeable ones, after the previous ones gradually faded.

As with any item that is refillable and reusable many times over, you pay more for the initial purchase and then a great deal less or not much at all for refilling or recharging that item dozens or hundreds of times before you need to dispose of it (appropriately, of course). A prime example are refillable stainless steel water bottles versus already filled single-use plastic water bottles. I understand that for some individuals, it is often simpler to grab-and-go the ‘regular’ non-reusable stuff without thinking about the annual cost or environmental impact of one over the other. 

But consider these small items of household batteries. If you count how many everyday items in your house require batteries, what is your number? Off the top of my head, I need AA or AAA batteries for the following: My wireless computer keyboard and computer mouse, the remote controls for my TV, DVD player and little electric space heater, one flashlight, three smoke alarms, two cute decorative light-strings, and I am sure I forgot several others. Each of these 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 motion-sensor outdoor light, and button batteries in my kitchen, and bathroom scales. I do not use any lithium-ion batteries that I can access (I know my laptop and cell phone have those, as do cordless power tools) but even those are available as rechargeable ones.

What is the problem with using single-use batteries, you may wonder? It is the same problem as with anything that requires precious natural resources or chemicals and energy to produce them, and then is either pointlessly wasted and polluting our environment in landfills or requires more energy and materials to recycle it for a second or different purpose. If old batteries end up in a landfill, pollutants like cadmium, lead, lithium or sulfuric acid can contaminate our soil, groundwater and waterways, as well as ecosystems, and can even make their way into our food chain. Sadly, around 30 per cent of consumers still throw their used batteries into regular garbage!

As for the higher cost of rechargeable batteries, often their benefits pay for themselves, 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 (that fits AA or AAA) runs between $30 to $40. Typically, you can recoup that cost after about six recharges, and they have a lifespan between two to seven years.

Some research suggests that they will not always get you back your money’s worth – apparently, it depends on what you use them for. If you have items that use battery power like crazy, those are prime candidates for rechargeables, for example wireless gaming controllers, point-and-shoot cameras, and children’s electronic toys. An easy way to tell whether the item has a moderate to high current-draw is if you need to change the batteries every 30 to 60 days. And if you need to change batteries this often, then using rechargeables will definitely save you money in the long term.

Either way, you will be doing something good for the environment by helping to reduce the number of batteries that need to be recycled every year, which uses massive amounts of energy. According to Call2Recycle Canada Inc., Canada’s national consumer battery collection and recycling program, around 68 per cent of residents recycled their old batteries to a total of almost 3 million kilograms of household batteries collected, recycled, and thereby diverted from landfill in 2019. These numbers do not differentiate between rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, but I would wager a bet that the number of rechargeable batteries accounted for are minuscule in comparison.

Recycling batteries helps recover and repurpose numerous useful materials. For example, the iron from the casing is recovered to make new goods, manganese oxide inside alkaline batteries is processed in a kiln to recover the zinc oxide, which can be used as an additive in numerous 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 look at it, using rechargeable batteries can be a win-win. Hopefully, at some point soon, they will become a normal and more obvious thing to do.

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