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?
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.
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
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.