Are Rechargeable Batteries Better for the Environment?

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It is easy to make blanket claims about consumer products with the expectation that very few people will check up on them. A case in point is claiming that a particular product is better for the environment than a competing product. But is that always true? For example, are rechargeable batteries better for the environment than their disposable counterparts?

First and foremost, it depends on who you ask. But even such disagreements aside, the environmental friendliness of rechargeable batteries really depends heavily on how you define the terms. There are some aspects of rechargeable batteries that are definitely better for the environment. There are other aspects that are not.

It is simply not appropriate to make a blanket statement about rechargeable batteries and environmental friendliness. Any such statements have to be quantified. They have to be supported by an appropriate definition of the terms. The rest of this post illustrates the principle by way of several different means of measuring environmental friendliness.

1. Battery Waste

Pale Blue Earth (PBE) is a Salt Lake City, Utah company that sells rechargeable batteries in multiple form factors. One of the motivations for starting the company was to help reduce the total volume of battery waste by encouraging people to forego disposable alkaline batteries in favor of reusable products.

In that sense, rechargeable batteries are better for the environment. A PBE battery can be charged 1,000 times or more. So for every one PBE battery that makes it to a landfill, there are 1,000+ disposable alkalines that get buried with it. But there’s a catch: rechargeable batteries contain chemicals that can harm the environment.

2. Landfill Pollution

It used to be that alkaline batteries were no good for landfills. They used to contain mercury. Yet federal legislation in the 1990s change that. Government regulators now say it is completely safe to dispose of alkaline batteries in landfills. The same is not true for most rechargeable battery technologies.

Consumers are urged to recycle rechargeable batteries for this very reason. Take NiCad batteries, for example. They contain cadmium which, when released from decomposing batteries, contaminates the surrounding soil. The environment can be harmed by all sorts of battery components including lithium, nickel, and cobalt.

The obvious solution to such problems is recycling. But there is a catch here as well: recycling is inefficient and energy intensive.

3. Battery Recycling and Manufacturing

To say that current battery recycling methods are crude is to understate a significant problem. Proper recycling requires a lot of energy and time. The energy requirements alone suggest that it might be more energy efficient to keep manufacturing and throwing away disposable batteries if consumers do not use rechargeable batteries until these completely die.

The other side of the recycling coin is manufacturing new battery cells. Manufacturing causes its own environmental problems ranging from energy consumption to the procuring of raw materials. There is no way to manufacture any kind of battery – be it disposable or rechargeable – without impacting the environment in some way.

Fossil fuels produce the energy necessary to manufacture batteries. Manufacturers must obtain lithium from miners to manufacture lithium-ion batteries. Yet mining is environmentally harmful. Do you see the problem here?

None of this is to say that we should not be using rechargeable batteries. We should be. They generate less waste and, in the long run, save consumers money. But it’s inappropriate to apply a blanket statement suggesting that rechargeable batteries are better for the environment across the board. It is not necessarily true. The environmental friendliness of rechargeable batteries is a complex issue influenced by a whole host of factors.

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