14 October 2008

Batteries: rechargeable or disposable better?

I often feel like a walking battery shop when out exploring the shores. With batteries in the two cameras and two flashes and torch and spare torch. And of course, back-up batteries. And since I use rechargeables, and the trips are back-to-back, there's usually another set of rechargeables charging at home while I'm out.

My rechargeable batteries last for about a year, but I do go through quite a lot of them at the same time.

So which is better for the environment, using rechargeable batteries or one-time disposable ones? Here's a recent article discussing the issues:

Plus and Minus: Disposable vs. Rechargeable Batteries
Steve Uydess, LiveScience.com Yahoo News 12 Oct 08;
The dawn of the internet and the Information Age generated tremendous new demand for power, as companies built their own networks and shifted to computer-based operations. Additionally, as technology shrinks to more portable proportions, more and more of that power will come from batteries.

New batteries certainly look shiny and clean and easy to dispose; however, as anyone who has left a battery sitting around for too long can attest, most batteries contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals that are harmful to people and the environment.

Given the fact that Americans alone purchase nearly 3 billion dry-cell batteries per year (for laptops, toys, phones and tools) and another 100 million wet-cell batteries (for cars, motorcycles and boats), even trace amounts of heavy metals quickly add up to a serious environmental problem.

As American dependency on battery power increases with each new gadget that hits the market, the question of how to power these devices has risen to the fore. Dry-cell batteries today come in either rechargeable or disposable varieties, so it is worth examining the benefits of each before deciding which to buy. We'll see how they stack up in the following three areas:

Toxic materials

Used: All batteries need some sort of heavy metal to function properly, and until the mid-1990s, most disposable alkaline batteries (think AA or AAA) contained up to 7 percent mercury. Since a 1996 law regulating mercury levels was passed, most companies have eliminated (or nearly so) its presence. Duracell, for example, uses steel, zinc and manganese.

On the other hand: In a classic catch-22 dilemma, the lack of expensive heavy metals means there is less incentive for companies to recycle them. Unlike single use, rechargeable batteries continue to make use of potentially toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead. While these metals still possess the same hazards, the long life of these batteries and abundance of recycling centers means these metals can easily be diverted from the waste stream.

Bottom line: Disposable batteries, while less toxic than they used to be, still end up in landfills more often than not. Rechargeable batteries are a boon for the environment if they are actually being recycled and not dumped into landfills or incinerated.

Lifetime vs. cost

Lifecycle: In these terms, rechargeable batteries are the clear winners, especially in devices that are used for extended periods, like computers or digital cameras. A typical battery of this type may be recharged 500-800 times before it loses its ability to hold a charge, at which point it can be recycled. Even factoring in the higher price of rechargeable batteries, you still would need hundreds of disposables to equal that kind of lifespan.

On the other hand: It should be noted that disposable batteries hold their charge better in devices that are only used intermittently, such as flashlights, toys or remote controls.

Bottom line: Even if environmental issues are secondary to economical issues in your book, rechargeable batteries will save you lots of green in the end.

What next

Recycle-ability: Rechargeable batteries again have the clear edge, but it is important to remember that rechargeable batteries are not the only type that can be recycled.

Some facilities have begun to collect and recycle disposable batteries. Also, many button-cell batteries (found in hearing aids and watches, for instance) are in high demand due to their valuable heavy metal content and ease of handling.

On the other hand: Still, neither of these types of battery can be recycled as easily as rechargeable batteries, due in part to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation's (RBRC) Call2Recycle program. As part of the rechargeable battery industry's recycling initiative, there are over 50,000 recycling centers nationwide, many at large retail chains like Home Depot, Circuit City and Sears. This greatly reduces the likelihood of consumers simply tossing their batteries in the trash. After all, a recycling program is only useful if people can easily participate.

Bottom line: Consumers should take advantage of recycling programs to ensure that their batteries are properly discarded. Also, since roughly 80 percent of batteries sold are disposable alkaline, it is up to consumers to transition to rechargeable batteries when possible.

So it seems the key to being green is to recycle those rechargeable batteries.

Do we have battery recycling in Singapore?
I consulted Eugene Tay of AsiaIsGreen on this.

Eugene shared NEA's explanation why there is no need to recycle batteries in Singapore.
Our main concern with the disposal of household batteries is the mercury content in some types of batteries as they pose a pollution problem during disposal. To make sure the mercury does not become a pollution problem, the National Environment Agency (NEA) has, since 1992, imposed a limit on the mercury content of batteries sold in Singapore. This limit is 0.001 per cent (by weight of mercury) for mercury-oxide batteries and zinc-carbon batteries; and 0.025 per cent for alkaline batteries.

With this control in place, we can allow household batteries to be disposed of with other household waste at our waste-to-energy plants. These plants have air pollution control equipment to ensure emissions are clean and meet stipulated standards.

He also said that batteries used to be collected by Citiraya for recycling. But the company has since been busted for fraud.

Eugene also shared that for handphone batteries, Motorola collects them, with collection locations on the NEA website.

See also Batteries in Singapore safe for disposal Teh Jen Lee, The New Paper 5 Mar 09

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