By Jennifer Giacoppo on Feb 1, 2010

Single-Use vs. Rechargeable

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Batteries, batteries everywhere and…not a drop to drink?

Forgive the failed metaphor. The point here is that batteries, both the kind that you toss after one use (single-use batteries) and the kind you can reuse (rechargeables), are an everyday essential in countless applications. Remote controls, cordless phones, power tools, toys, handheld games, digital cameras, flashlights, smoke detectors (you get the idea).

Unfortunately, with all this consumption comes a great deal of waste. Each year, Americans throw out almost 180,000 tons of batteries, with a majority of these being the single-use variety.

On the other hand, rechargeable battery use is on the rise. In fact, the U.S. EPA estimates that more than 350 million rechargeable batteries are purchased annually in the U.S.

So, with our increasing need for portable power, which kind is the best for you? Is there a “better” battery?

Photo: Flickr/awnisalan

Battery consumption continues to skyrocket, with hundreds of millions purchased every year. Photo: Flickr/awnisalan

All In Favor

Let’s start our debate with a few of the reasons as to why each type of battery is a good choice:

  • Single-Use: Single-use batteries are produced on a greater scale than rechargeables, making them initially cheaper to purchase. They are also prevalent and widely available, making them easily accessible. Recycling opportunities for them are also increasingly available.
  • Rechargeables: Able to be reused multiple times, rechargeables are thought to save consumers money over the life of each battery. Also, due to the Battery Act of 1996, providing easy ways for the public to recycle these batteries is mandated by law, and opportunities abound.

All Opposed

To be fair, we’ll briefly summarize the negatives of each type:

  • Single-Use: Single-use are often considered more “wasteful,” because we consume such a large quantity of them. And this may sound redundant, but you can only use them once – increasing the need to have extra batteries around at all times in case your (insert electronic gadget here) dies.
  • Rechargeables: Rechargeables are often cited as being too expensive and not offering enough “bang” for your buck. They also contain a great deal of heavy metals, meaning that if you don’t recycle them, contamination is much more likely.

What Goes Where?

The real way to solve the mystery is to ask where you’ll be using the battery, and what kind of battery works best in different gadgets. To get an expert opinion, Earth911 chatted with Call2Recycle, the only free rechargeable battery and cell phone collection program in North America.

“When choosing between single-use batteries and rechargeable batteries, you should consider the value and expected life of the product the batteries will power,” said Carl Smith, president and CEO of Call2Recycle.

“For example, cell phones are used frequently over an extended period of time, recharged often, and can be expensive, so they require a rechargeable battery.”

So, what are you going to use? Is it a high-tech gadget that will need portable power on a regular basis? Then rechargeables are for you.

“Certain products increasingly depend on rechargeable batteries due to product evolution – digital cameras drain single-use batteries very quickly and as a result, many digital cameras are now sold with rechargeable batteries included.”

But what about slower drain products, such as your remote control?

“Rechargeable batteries aren’t necessary for low-cost products that don’t use much power. For example, television remote controls can sometimes last for years on a single-use battery, so it doesn’t make sense to purchase more expensive rechargeable batteries for such a low maintenance device,” added Smith.

It’s also always recommended to use single-use batteries in your smoke detectors, as rechargeables can drain much more quickly and require you to change them more often or increase the chances that the battery will be dead when you need it most.

They All End Up Somewhere

Recycling programs are available for all types of batteries. Check out our Recycling Directory to see what is available near you. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Recycling programs are available for all types of batteries. Check out our Recycling Directory to see what is available near you. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

No matter what kind of battery you use, recycling them at their end of life is key to preventing pollution and recapturing valuable metals to be reused.

Because of their materials, these batteries may or may not be considered hazardous waste in different states. So, you should always check with your local government health, solid waste or recycling department before you consider their disposal.

According to Call2Recycle, most batteries are named for the type of metal they contain (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, etc.). The more harmful the metal, the more likely you’ll be able to find a recycler because of state and federal laws.

Many battery retailers will also accept them for recycling. This includes both automotive and household batteries. You can also find mail-in programs that allow you to collect batteries over time and send them in all at once. You’ll want to properly prepare batteries prior to recycling, otherwise they could explode during shipping.

Once batteries are collected, any acids are drained for reuse, metals are reprocessed for recycling into new products and plastic casings are melted down and recycled into new plastics.

Through Call2Recycle’s program, retailers such as Alltel, AT&T, Best Buy, Black & Decker, DeWalt, The Home Depot, Interstate All Battery Centers, Lowe’s, Milwaukee Electrical Tool, Office Depot, Orchard Supply, Porter Cable Service Centers, RadioShack, Remington Product Company, Sears, Staples, Target, US Cellular and Verizon Wireless all offer some sort of battery recycling program.

All of the materials collected through the Call2Recycle program are recycled and used to create other types of materials, including new batteries and scrap metal. None of the material broken down from the recycling of rechargeable batteries and cell phones makes its ways into the landfills.

While nine states have passed laws banning rechargeable batteries from landfills, New York City and the state of California have passed the only laws requiring manufacturer take-back programs. This means that in four of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., you can purchase rechargeable batteries and know exactly where you can take them for recycling.

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Comments

  1. says

    Recycling ALL BATTERIES is an absolute MUST for the future of our beautiful Earth. Great Post! It was very informative and many people don’t know about the recycling process of all kinds of batteries.

    – Maurizio Maranghi –

    Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  2. says

    Hi Jennifer:
    Thanks for your article. Another benefit of rechargeable batteries is energy and material resource savings by having to produce fewer batteries overall. In addition, the “Call2recycle” program is free to consumers, towns and businesses. However, there is usually a fee to recycle single use batteries. Another good reason to buy rechargeable batteries.
    Regards,
    Jamie Cahillane, Recycling Services Director, CET

  3. Gerry says

    I think this story leaves out some very important information.
    1. How much more do rechargeables cost? (See 2 below for why I do not know.) Is it 20%, 100%, 1000%?
    2. Where can one buy rechargeables? All I can find are kits with charger and batteries. I already have a charger. Nobody seems to carry just batteries. Do I have to buy them online, adding further to the cost?

  4. Maureen says

    I learned a few things from your article. So thank you.

    One question. What about the new super charged single use batteries (8x single use)? Are they recyclable?

  5. shannon says

    There is another, much better IMO, type of rechargeable (NiMH) which has been available for the past couple of years. They hold something like 85% of their charge after a year of non-use (so are good for smoke detectors.). Additionally, the company claims you can recharge them up tp 1000X. The ones I have are eneloop by Sanyo, but there proabably are other brands.

  6. carol says

    It seems to me that somebody by now should have invented a contraption where the human being provides enough energy (in running, biking, any repetitive movement) to charge a battery. I remember as a child a toy where the child could turn a handle that provided enough energy to keep a light bulb on. When running was such a big craze a few years ago, I was waiting to see people with wires attached to their heels powering their walkmans. But it never happened. Why not?

  7. Janene says

    Rechargeable batteries can be purchased at various retailers. I’ve found packs (without the charger) in a variety of sizes at Sam’s Club. I also believe they are available at Target stores. Maybe check online store sites to see if they’re available at a local store near you. Thanks for a great article, Jennifer, that encourages recycling all batteries AND the reasons why. Knowledge and understanding are important for all – so the message can be passed to others for this recycling practice to increase.

  8. Jessica says

    I saved our single use batteries for recycling… took them to a local landfill that said they recycle batteries… turns out they just throw away single use, household batteries with the rest of the trash because they don’t have the heavy metals like they used too. I was very disappointed. We have been slowly changing over to all rechargable, which the dump does recycle.

  9. says

    My organization recently closed down its single-use battery collection program. NYS DEC has determined that alkaline batteries are not hazardous waste. As noted in the article, other types of batteries have alternate disposal options. In addition to the non-hazardous waste designation, US DOT has developed more stringent shipping regulations on lithium batteries. These restrictions made it impossible for my organization to handle these batteries, which are a very small proportion of all the batteries collected.

  10. Linda A. says

    Great article, Jen! Very informative! In the small Connecticut town where I live, our library collects batteries (with the exception of automotive batteries) for recycling. Fortunately, I really don’t have any need for rechargeables (mostly what I need batteries for are my remote controls and smoke alarms), so I can avoid the high up-front cost of rechargeables. Rechargeables are much more expensive, initially, than single-use (the batteries plus their charging units), but, if you use a lot of power-hungry electronic devices, they pay for themselves over the long haul. There’s even a USB recharging unit for AA rechargeables that you can plug into your computer.

  11. Nate says

    I haven’t boughten a single, ‘single charge battery’ in over 10 years. I actually have some old batteries that i was going to throw away, i had to look up recycling options for useless computers & came across this. IMO Duracell rechargable batteries are the best overall considering they don’t lose much charge as much as the Energizer recharables. I have to recharge my Energizer batteries anytime i use them as Duracell’s can hold its charge even though it hasn’t been charged in weeks. Not sure if the MAh rating makes a difference though. I, even use the older rechargable batteries for my remotes & anything else low powered that older rechargable batteries won’t work in higher end devices like my walkman. Plus they last even longer when you dont’ use them as much. I noticed my Energizer batteries are showing thier age while i bought a set of Duracells’ back in ’04 or ’05 & they still work great! I saw 50 packs of ‘single use’ batteries in Target & wondering, why would anyone need that many batteries?

    Honestly not only single use batteries are harmful to the environment mostly to mass amounts of batteries (battery acid leakage) but its just not cost effective. If the average person that needs a 50 pack of batteries within 1 or 2 years they could probably get the same out of 8 rechargable batteries in that time & possibly get more usage out of it, if you like to run things into the ground (when something becomes completely unusable) before replacing it. I highly suggest rechargable batteries to everyone. Even if you hardly use batteries to begin with if you buy rechargables & try them out for awhile you may prefer to use that to save money in the end either way.

    It’s nice to know i live right by a recycling center too.

  12. says

    Thanks for the article. I re-copy and published an article about battery recycle center in my country to my blog (asabunga.blogspot.com), and I need an image for it. When I searched for the image I came across this article. I think this site is great. Can I translate some of the article and publish it in my blog? I will mention the source, for sure.

  13. Bill says

    I have rechargeables for some of my power tools but other batteries I just use cheapo single use type from the dollar store. None-the less, any of the batteries , rechargeable or otherwise, go in my trash when they are exhausted. I buy the rechargeable ones for my power tools at an outlet, they don’t take the old ones back, and I’m not going to cart them around anyway. That’s what I pay the trash pick up company for.

  14. says

    This is an awesome, well-researched article. I work for a company called PC Treasures, and we offer a product called the ReZap Battery Engineer. It lets you charge both rechargeable and nonrechargeable batteries up to ten times, so it’s a very green product, and I think it’s worth checking out. Go to digitaltreasures.com (there’s also a funny video we made about it on the site).

  15. Dwayne says

    Thanks much. I knew there had to be something somewhere and yet I had no real way to get there when it came to recycling batteries. It kills me having to resort to landfills for all too much of what otherwise could be recycled.

    Thanks much, be good.

  16. Donna says

    Sadly I use single-use batteries just as much as I do rechargeable, but I do recycle them all once they are spent. I extend the life of single-use batteries by using my Buddy L Super Charger which charges both single-use and rechargeables.

  17. Geoffrey Morrison says

    Single-cell still is best for charge-storage applications–remotes, etc. I do try to use a charger to keep single-cell batteries alive for as long as possible. I do think the better brands like Duracell recharge better and offer more uses.

    Pre-charged NiMH batteries are supposed to supplant single cell batteries. I have some Wally World-favored Kodak pre-charged batteries in a certain wall clock–the movement became really slow since, I suppose now that the batteries are somewhat old and give off lesser voltage. Thus, I’m pretty certain that single-cell alkaline is the best for clocks–they don’t leak so much current over time–and, a slow clock isn’t evident until the batteries need recharging or are finished. I was hoping that pre-charged NiMH would succeed better….

    NiMH and Li-ON are the best for frequent charging and high current demand applications. Digital cameras, camcorders, and wireless phones come to mind. Always, it’s best to remove such batteries and store them safely until the next use/recharge (don’t let their terminals meet themselves or metal). Current seems to drain very quickly from NiMH and Li-ON batteries into electronic circuitry.

    Westinghouse amber LED outdoor accent lights actually can use and recharge NiMH batteries.(Unfortunately, the plastic of the Westinghouse lights becomes very brittle). The later Malibu amber LED heads don’t recharge NiMH sufficiently, though. I’ve seen the Malibu Ni-Cad batteries for sale at Home Depot and/or Lowes. I need to get a pack–and to recycle some old Ni-Cad cells there, also. NiCads don’t hold up in any way as well as NiMH–I have many such Ni-Cads to recycle. It’s somewhat rare that a NiMH battery won’t recharge any longer.

    (An odd battery application and solution of some interest for photographers: An old Honeywell photographic spot meter my Dad left me used an odd-size mercury battery–of course mercury cells no longer are available in the U.S. anymore–shipping them here from foreigners certainly is illegal, too. . (OKC’s recycling center did take the old ’60s era cell in.) An alkaline replacement is available in the correct size and type: Unfortunately, alkaline batteries lose current steadily over time–affecting readings–mercury batteries gave about the same current throughout its virtually all of their lives. Some clever guy now fabricates battery enclosures which fit in common replaceable button batteries as well as the meter. Thus, current decay from the button battery mimics that of mercury cells very well. Readings remain accurate.)

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