A battery of sins?
Mary Rayner examines the highs and lows of rechargeable batteries
Batteries are big business. We buy around 15 million of them over the Christmas period alone.(1) However, around 600 million household batteries, which contain potentially toxic ingredients, are sent to landfill every year.(2) One major contribution consumers can make to reduce landfill and subsequent pollution is to buy rechargeable rather than single-use batteries.
Another contribution consumers can make is to recycle used batteries, and the good news is that a new battery recycling scheme is being trialled by the waste action group Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) (see below).
For reasons of space, this report is restricted to companies supplying rechargeable AA and AAA batteries.
Compared to the rate of battery recycling in the rest of Europe, we lag shamefully behind. Currently, only between 0.5 and 2 per cent of our waste batteries are recycled.(2) The forthcoming EU Batteries Directive will require 25 per cent of used batteries to be recycled by 2012.(3)
A new battery recycling trial, led by WRAP, started in March this year. The group is working in partnership with existing doorstep recycling schemes to roll the trial out to over 350,000 households.
To find out if you live in an area covered by the scheme, contact WRAP at the number in the Links section. If not, contact your Local Authority to establish whether there is a battery collection point nearby.
Types of rechargeables
- Nickel Cadmium (NiCad). Around 80 per cent of rechargeable batteries contain cadmium.(5) It is a known human carcinogen so NiCads should not be put into the usual household waste bins.(4) In the absence of other facilities, such as recycling, they should be mailed back to the supplier.
- Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries are a less toxic alternative to NiCads and tend to have a longer lifespan.
- Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) have a greater energy storage capacity than both NiCad and NiMH batteries. Li-Ion batteries do not suffer from the so-called "memory effect" or "voltage depletion" that can reduce discharge capacity when NiCad and NiMH batteries are repeatedly recharged without being fully discharged.(17) Unfortunately they are not available in AA or AAA sizes and thus may be due to possible dangers involved in charging - a Li-Ion battery put into a NiCad or NiMH charger not designed for Li-Ion might ignite.(6)
Ban on cadmium?
In 2001, the European Commission's Environment Directorate General proposed the phasing out of all batteries containing cadmium by 2008. This proposal was withdrawn later that year following "intense" lobbying from the battery industry.(14) However, poor implementation of the existing battery Directive led the Commission to prepare a new draft, which again included a ban on NiCads (albeit with extensive exemptions). The American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium (of which Procter & Gamble, owner of Gillette, is a patron member)(15) reacted to the proposals by saying that a ban on cadmium would infringe upon free trade agreements with the US.
The Commission eventually agreed on a 'phasing out' of cadmium in batteries, with a partial ban on NiCads. Unfortunately, exemptions mean that batteries for 'high-drain' cordless equipment such as toothbrushes, razors and certain tools (which comprise 70 per cent of the market) will not be included in the ban.
All this means that cadmium will continue to be disposed of in general waste well into the next decade. Ethical Consumer suggests that concerned consumers may want to take action and avoid all NiCad batteries, opting instead for the less toxic NiMH alternative.
It appears that only GP, Panasonic and Uniross sell NiCad rechargeables in the UK. All the companies on the table, including these three, sell NiMH batteries, so we urge consumers to opt for these instead.
You can get the best from your rechargeable battery by following these simple tips, from www.greenbatteries.com:
- Overcharging: older battery chargers can continue to deliver current to the batteries even after they are fully charged. Make sure that your batteries are fully discharged before recharging.
- Drain: make sure you turn your battery-powered devices off when not in use. After a few weeks, continued load on a discharged battery will cause the polarity of the battery to reverse (the plus end actually becomes minus and vice versa). Once this happens, the battery will not take a charge again. Battery makers recommend that rechargeable batteries be removed from any devices that will not be used for several weeks or more.