“ Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven't tried before. ” — Mae West
Anyone who can’t get through the day without a cell phone, TV remote control, or almost any small electronic device needs to replace a battery sooner or later. For a product so ubiquitous and essential, we have two choices (arguably “evils”): single-use or rechargeable batteries.
Common single-use varieties are alkaline, button cell, and lithium batteries. Rechargeables include nickel-cadmium (NiCd), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium ion. Both single use and rechargeable types are convenient and portable … and potentially harmful to humans and the environment.
PCC sells alkaline disposable and NiMH rechargeable batteries as a customer convenience. 2009 sales of both were less than two-hundredths of one percent of total sales, seemingly hardly worth our notice given that nationwide battery sales last year reached an estimated $14.8 billion. And according to The Freedonia Group, an international business research company, US demand for primary and secondary batteries will reach $16.5 billion in 2012. But it is the connection between battery safety and the safety of our food and water supplies that makes batteries worth everyone's notice.
The electrochemical process that takes place in a battery isn’t dangerous in itself but mishandling a battery that results in the release of toxic ingredients into the environment can be. These ingredients may include heavy metals, such as cadmium (an element that can cause kidney and lung damage); lead (a highly toxic metal that can impair reproductive and nervous systems); and lithium (an element that can contribute to acid rain).
These substances potentially are so dangerous the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology designate batteries as “Universal Waste,” meaning the materials used in them must be prevented from escaping into the environment and that manufacturers of batteries must take part in ensuring safe disposal methods. (Other Universal Waste categories are pesticides and equipment containing mercury, such as some thermostats and fluorescent bulbs).
Reducing and containing the threat posed by some battery ingredients is entirely doable. Rechargeable batteries can last 500-plus times as long as disposable ones, thereby reducing total battery waste. Legally mandated disposal procedures for both single-use and rechargeable batteries can prevent the leaching of their hazardous ingredients into landfills that eventually contaminates our water and air.
The EPA estimates that three billion dry cell batteries are purchased annually nationwide, of which only 20 percent are rechargeable. Among PCC’s sales of the most popular household sizes, AA and AAA, rechargeables accounted for only 13 percent of sales last year.
Why aren’t rechargeables more popular? Most likely, cost. A two-pack of AA rechargeable batteries can cost more than 200 percent more than disposables. Depending on the type of battery, a charging unit might cost $10 to $50. These costs, however, are quickly recovered in the savings realized by eliminating the repeated purchase of single-use batteries.
Other possible reasons are that some consumers believe that rechargeables deplete available electricity (from the grid) or that while the volume of waste from rechargeables is substantially less, the waste content can be substantially more toxic than that from disposables. Still another explanation is that it’s simply easier to open a new pack of batteries than to remember to recharge reusables or to remind others in your household to do so.
From the standpoints of consumer need and demand, cost, and environmental health risks, batteries truly will remain necessary evils until consumer habits change or safer, portable power sources are developed.
PCC recently considered a new line of batteries promoted as eco-friendly. They’re cadmium and mercury-free but not rechargeable. They’re produced in factories that follow international requirements for waste management; ozone-depleting compounds are eliminated from the manufacturing process; and only recycled paper is used for packaging. PCC’s best-selling brand of single-use batteries has virtually the same attributes and, since pricing is comparable, there’s no incentive for us to change.
There is incentive — in less environmental damage and lower cost over time — for changing our battery-buying behavior. The significantly longer, useful life of rechargeables makes them clearly the lesser of the two battery evils — just as reusable shopping bags are preferable to single-use bags.
PCC encourages consumers to consider investing in rechargeables and to take care in how you dispose of all household and vehicle batteries.