Portable Power

An Eco-Conscious Guide to Batteries

Without batteries, more than 500,000 Americans would not have woken up on time this morning. Nearly 150 million would be stuck in traffic with dead engines. And 400 million would be talking to themselves on their dead cell phones. From pacemakers to wristwatches, the human dependency on a battery-powered life has never been greater. Consumer electronics products are predicted to reach a record $99.5 billion in sales this year, an increase of 3.5 percent from 2002, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

© Brian Howard

While the number of portable electronic devices is on the rise, it is often the more environmentally harmful batteries that provide the power. A major problem with batteries is not so much the batteries themselves, but inefficient use and disposal by confused consumers.

Pick Your Power

With more than a dozen different batteries available for everyday applications, choosing the right one can be confusing. Alkaline batteries are still the most commonly used type around the house, and they come in the standard sizes: D, C, AA and AAA. Nickel-metal hydride rechargeable batteries are also available in the standard sizes, and are often used as an alternative to alkalines. Silver-oxide batteries are the ones that look like small buttons, and are commonly found in watches, calculators and hearing aids. Lithium-ion batteries are used in digital cameras, laptops and cell phones. Nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries are commonly used in cordless phones, personal care products, appliances and portable power tools.

One of the most important decisions consumers make when buying batteries is to find the most efficient type for the application, says Ric Erdheim, senior manager of government affairs for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Low-drain uses include radios and flashlights. Moderate-drain devices include CD players, smoke detectors and electronic toys, while power-hungry products include digital cameras and portable televisions.

Erdheim says consumers should use primary, or non-rechargeable, batteries—such as alkaline cells—for intermittent use or long-life products, including smoke detectors. "The bottom line comes down to the best battery for the use," he says.

While power hogs such as laptops and digital cameras often sell with more expensive (and long-lasting) batteries, such as lithium-ion, nickel-metal hydride or nickel-cadmium, consumers can often choose whether to use rechargeable or non-rechargeable batteries. A digital camera might cost $50 to $100 more with a rechargeable battery, but battery life can be minutes and sometimes up to an hour longer than the throwaway varieties. According to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC), some rechargeable batteries can go through 1,000 cycles. Rechargeable batteries cost approximately $1.57 for an hour of use, while standard batteries cost $2.50, according to Rayovac. In general, rechargeables leave a lighter ecological footprint.

More than 350 million rechargeable batteries are purchased every year in the U.S. While they pose little risk while in use, improper disposal can result in the discharge of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and a significant health and environmental risk. Batteries represent less than one percent of municipal solid waste, yet they contribute a large amount of toxic waste. In 1995, 75 percent of the cadmium found in the municipal waste stream came from nickel-cadmium batteries, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Every year more than three billion consumer and industrial batteries are sold, and 40 tons make their way into the waste stream, according to Rayovac. Both burying batteries in landfills and incinerating them can result in the leaking of heavy metals into the soil, air, ground or surface water, and eventually into the food chain.

For many years, waste disposal of batteries was problematic, since there was no uniform recycling program, and state efforts often created conflicting label and recycling requirements. In 1996, the federal Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act was signed. The act phased out mercury in primary batteries but permits toxic metals in rechargeable alternatives as long as they are properly labeled. The label is required to display the type of battery and state that it must be recycled.

To Recycle, or Not to Recycle?

The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation’s logo is found on many battery labels. The nonprofit organization represents rechargeable battery manufacturers and recycles millions of their products each year. In the first six months of 2003, the RBRC recycled two million batteries. Through its program, Charge Up to Recycle!, the RBRC has established an agreement with retailers for more than 30,000 used-battery collection sites in the U.S. and Canada. Several big-box retailers are involved, including Best Buy, Home Depot, Target and Sears.

RBRC only collects nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride, lithium ion and small sealed-lead batteries. Bette Fishbein, a senior fellow for Inform, an independent environmental research organization, stresses the importance of recycling batteries. "Everyone knew cadmium was dangerous, but there are other things in lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries that haven’t been tested," Fishbein says. "All rechargeable batteries should be recycled."

While the RBRC remains the only nationwide program for recycling, it does not accept alkaline batteries. Now devoid of mercury and other harmful metals, alkaline batteries are often thrown away rather than recycled. While these batteries may be deemed safe to throw away, some critics argue that recycling is still a better alternative.

The Big Green Box program offers consumers, companies and government agencies the opportunity to recycle any battery (including alkalines) or portable electronic device without having to drive to a recycling center. The boxes can fit 43 pounds of batteries or old equipment, and all you have to do is fill it and ship it. The concept depends on the participant’s environmental altruism, because the consumer pays an upfront shipping and recycling fee. Prices range from $58 for one box to $2,600 for a pack of 50 boxes.

Supporting such recycling efforts can help lessen the 220 million pounds of electronics waste that is thrown away every year.

SARAH LOEHNDORF is an E intern who swears by rechargeable batteries.