The Positive & The Negative Of Batteries

The power to choose...

What use is single-use?

Battery technology is coming on and although there’s still no such thing as a totally‘green’ battery, these days there are some great alternatives to single-use (which can be the worst offenders).

So why are single-use no good? Well, if you consider over 10 BILLION single-use alkaline dry cell batteries (like the little AA and AAA type) are produced every year and only used for a short time, you begin to get an idea of the problem. Most of these 10 billion batteries end up in landfill[i] where they can leak, leach and pollute…so,it is a SERIOUS problem.

So, what can we do to help? Well, we can help reduce waste and stop so many of them reaching landfill. So, correct disposal, proper use and yes, using them for longer, i.e.,RECHARGING!.

 

Pollution problems

Some of the older batteries contained lead and mercury(toxic heavy metals). These metals pollute water, soil and crops. Even when correctly disposed of, these types of batteries caused (and still do cause) serious pollution, even at state-of-the-art reprocessing centres. Luckily these days, lead and mercury is no longer used as much in battery manufacture. Instead, one of the biggest issues is what to do with all the discarded (although less toxic) alkaline batteries, as so many just end up in landfill.

So, your average little AA or AAA Alkaline is just used ONCE and virtually NONE are recycled[ii]. They use lots of energy to make and lots of materials. In fact, one little 33g AA contains all these things:

 

Material

Mass (g)

1

Electrolytic Manganese Dioxide

13

2

Potassium hydroxide

3.7

3

Graphite

1.2

4

Nickel‐Plated Steel

6.0

5

Zinc

5.8

6

Brass

1.0

7

Galvanized steel

0.52

8

Nylon

0.51

9

Paper

0.51

10

PVC

0.51

 

Total weighted battery

33

Source: Olivetti &Kirchain, 2011

 

Each one will use its own weight in water (32g) and travelled a whopping(average) of 2,100km before reaching the retailer![iii]

 

So why are single-use so popular?

In a nutshell because they are convenient, cheap and effective. And the truth is, they can make sense if used right, i.e. in gadgets like a remote control when they will last for a long time before ‘dying’. In this instance they will last enough time to warrant use over a more expensive rechargeable equivalent. Unfortunately, though, most devices need more power, and this is where rechargeable batteries come into their own.

Are rechargeable batteries better?

Yes, rechargeable batteries can be a much better alternative to single-use because they can be used across a range of devices which need power again and again. They can:

  • LAST far longer between charges
  • Can be recharged over 500 times (sometimes even a thousand!)
  • PERFORM better in extreme situations (cold weather/remote locations)

As they can be re-used again and again they have an ‘extended product-life-cycle’ which means their ‘embodied energy’ (the energy needed to make them) is spread out over years of use. Also, they can be better for the environment because:

  • They can be LIGHTER and easier to transport (for example, an AA battery can be 30% lighter[iv])
  • They do not contain dangerous HEAVY METALS
  • They are used for far LONGER, reducing the waste problem
  • They can be charged using RENEWABLE energy

Rechargeable battery technology is improving all the time and although they do require a bit more energy to produce, this is usually more than off-set by their extended use (so make sure they don’t fall down the back of the sofa!).

Concerns over the mining of metals like lithium, cobalt and nickel (all found in rechargeable batteries) can be of serious environmental concern[v](e.g. toxic dust[vi] and high energy-consumption) but if used correctly, they have such clear advantages that these concerns can easily be outweighed(when compared with other battery types).

 

What types of rechargeable batteries are available?

There are 3 main types of modern rechargeable battery: Nickel-metal hybride (NiMH), nickel-cadmium (NiCD) and Lithium-ion, and they are all suited to different purposes.

The first two are the most common and can be significantly cheaper than lithium batteries. They can be recharged around 500 times and are commonly found in a range of sizes and applications. They are therefore more suited to ‘low-drain’ devices such as clocks or toys.

Lithium-ion are perhaps the best-performing (as they require less time between charge and can hold more power), but they are currently more expensive and harder to find in AA and AAA size (although some manufacturers now produce them).

Like with so much, the environmental impacts of batteries have much to do with consumer behavior and rechargeable batteries have clear advantages and ultimately, can offer the consumer not only a more environmentally-friendly product, but also a better-performing one.

  ______________________________________________________________

 

[i]Olivetti, E., J. Gregory, and R. Kirchain. 2011. Life cycle impacts of alkaline batteries with a focus on end‐of‐life. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Materials Systems Lab.

[ii] Olivetti, E., J. Gregory, and R. Kirchain. 2011. Life cycle impacts of alkaline batteries with a focus on end‐of‐life. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Materials Systems Lab.

[iii]Figures taken from Olivetti, E., J. Gregory, and R. Kirchain. 2011. Life cycle impacts of alkaline batteries with a focus on end‐of‐life. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Materials Systems Lab.

[iv] The nacconNI-MH AA USB 1.2V 1450mah is 20.0g and a standard alkaline AA battery weighs around 30g

[v] See for example: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/19/children-as-young-as-seven-mining-cobalt-for-use-in-smartphones-says-amnesty

[vi] See the report in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/aug/24/nickel-mining-hidden-environmental-cost-electric-cars-batteries

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