Batteries

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 13 rechargeable and non-rechargeable battery brands.

We also look at toxic pollution, recycling old batteries and give our Best Buys and recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying batteries:

  • Is it rechargeable? Rechargeable batteries can be recharged up to 1000 times.

  • Is it conflict-free? We expect companies that produce electrical goods to have robust conflict minerals policies so consumers can be sure they aren't sourcing materials that exacerbate conflict.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying batteries?

  • Is it non-rechargable? Even though they can be recycled you'll be sending them for recycling more often than if you had rechargeables.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The positives and negatives of the battery market

When it comes to batteries, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a good approach. All batteries are recyclable; buying rechargeable batteries means you can reuse them multiple times; and, especially as there are no Best Buys in this guide, it is always useful to question which battery-hungry devices are actually necessary at all.

There is a multitude of different types of batteries out there, and it is currently a dynamic market, with a lot of research going into improving battery technology.

For this guide, we are focusing on the most commonly available consumer batteries so will mainly be talking about Alkaline, Lithium-metal, Nickel Metal Hydride (NiHM) and Lithium-ion batteries.

We look at the human and environmental impacts of batteries at both the start and end of their life-cycle as well as exploring some of the key ways that consumers and manufacturers can lessen these impacts.

Four AA batteries

Score table highlights

Tax Avoidance

Fujitsu, Panasonic, Energizer/Eveready, GP, Kodak, Berkshire Hathaway (Duracell) and Philips all lost a full mark under Anti-Social Finance for having company structures often used for tax avoidance purposes.

Wilko, Multibrands (Supacell) and Varta did not lose marks for likely use of tax avoidance strategies.

Conflict Minerals

With the exception of Philips, every single company on the list received Ethical Consumer’s worst rating for its conflicts minerals policy, which saw them lose whole marks under both Human Rights and Habitats and Resources. Philips received Ethical Consumer’s best rating.

Excessive director pay Panasonic, Energizer, GP, Kodak, Berkshire Hathaway (Duracell) and Philips all lost half a mark under AntiSocial Finance due to having directors paid annual salaries of over £1,000,000.

Oppressive regimes

Despite the reduced number of countries included on our  oppressive regimes list, five companies still lost a full mark under Human Rights for having operations in over six of these countries. These were Berkshire Hathaway, Fujitsu, Philips, Wilko and Panasonic.

Energizer and Kodak both lost half a mark for having operations in two to four oppressive regimes. While they were not marked down Varta and Multibrands (Supacell) still both had operations in one oppressive regime.

The costs of extraction

While they are named after individual metals, many batteries actually contain a mix of the same metals. For example, lithium-ion batteries contain nickel, and some nickel batteries contain lithium. Cobalt also tends to be present in most rechargeable batteries.

The impacts of extracting these metals paint a fairly bleak picture, described below. However, none of this is a reason to completely avoid batteries, which are essential for us to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, as this is reliant on our ability to store power.

There are actions we can take. To start with, we can ensure we use rechargable batteries, use them as efficiently as possible and, when they do run out, make sure we recycle them rather than sending them to landfill or leaving them squirrelled away in odd corners of the house. And we can put pressure on companies to improve their standards.

Battery components

Lithium batteries are, in many ways, a step forward. The increased power holding capabilities and lighter weight of lithium technology not only means that we need fewer batteries but has also been hugely important for the development of electric vehicles.

However, the increasing demand for lithium is not without its negative impacts. Lithium is extracted from brine found under salt flats. Salt flats in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have some of the highest concentrations of lithium in the world. This has seen mining companies flocking to the area to profit from this now highly sought-after element.

Serious concerns have been raised by the Indigenous communities living in these areas about how much they share in the benefits from the operations on their land, as well as the possible environmental impacts of extensive mining. In land where water is already scarce, the amount being used by the mining companies can reduce access for local communities as well as contaminate fresh water sources with salt or chemicals.

We know the lithium companies are taking millions of dollars from our lands”, Luisa Jorge, a leader in Susques, told the Washington Post, “The companies are conscious of this. And we know they ought to give something back. But they’re not”.

While the huge increase in demand for lithium is not primarily driven by consumer batteries, more and more of them rely on the metal. As well as this, many of the companies producing consumer batteries are also manufacturing phones, laptops or electric car batteries which certainly are driving up demand.

For example, the Washington Post’s exposé links Panasonic to one of the lithium mines accused of sidelining Indigenous communities for profits.

Corporations need to ensure that important solutions to the climate crisis are not implemented through further destruction and exploitation: “We are not against lithium. We just want our voices to be heard,” says one of the community leaders in Argentina’s Salinas Grandes. “We are fighting for the next generation.”

Nickel is a vital component of lithiumion as well as NiMH batteries.

Unfortunately, the extraction of nickel has been linked with high levels of environmental destruction and toxic pollution.

As the Guardian reported: “Plumes of sulphur dioxide choking the skies, churned earth blanketed in cancerous dust, rivers running blood-red – environmental campaigners have painted a grim picture of the nickel mines and smelters”.

In 2016, New Internationalist reported on the devastating effects that nickel mining pollution was having on local communities in Colombia, with drastic increases in birth defects, miscarriages and cancer, as well as numerous other illnesses.

Dayro Romero, governor of the Indigenous community of Pueblo Flecha told the publication: “we feel environmentally massacred”.

Extreme pollution could be prevented if mining companies were under more scrutiny to adhere to standards of best practice. Companies could insist on certification from independent organisations such as the Initiative of Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA) to ensure that mining becomes more environmentally and socially responsible.
 

Cobalt is an important component of both lithium-ion and nickel-metal hydride batteries and rechargeable batteries contain roughly 50% of all the cobalt produced globally.

A significant amount of cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where mining is associated with conflict and labour abuses.

Publicly traded companies in the US are required to report on the tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold they source from the DRC, but it has been up to campaign groups to put pressure on companies to report on cobalt.

The Responsible Sourcing Network works to create multi-stakeholder initiatives to address human rights abuses in problematic supply chains. It publishes a yearly report analysing corporate compliance under Special Disclosure of US conflict mineral legislation. The organisation included cobalt in its ‘Mining Disclosures Report’ for the first time this year.

It does not carry the same risk of supporting armed conflict, as cobalt mines are generally located in the south of the country, but child slavery and poor working conditions have been shown to be widespread.

In 2016, Amnesty reported: “The children who were not attending school worked in the mines all year round. For example, Paul, aged 14, started mining at the age of 12 and worked in tunnels underground. He told researchers he would often ‘spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning’”.

Graphite is used as a cathode (the positive end) in many batteries, including alkaline and lithium ones.

Graphite mines and refiners are causing serious pollution in many Chinese towns and villages in Heilongjiang province.

Again, the Washington Post linked these graphite suppliers directly to Panasonic. Villagers living in the area told the journalists about “sparkling night air, damaged crops, homes and belongings covered in soot, polluted drinking water – and government officials inclined to look the other way to benefit a major employer”.

While there is less coverage of these, the extraction of other metals frequently found in batteries such as manganese, zinc and potassium is not without issues either, as environmental destruction, pollution and exploitation seem to go hand in hand with the mining industry.

Recycling

The importance of recycling

All types of batteries can be recycled with the metals used being completely recoverable, with no limits on the number of times they can be recycled.

Recycling batteries also prevents their disposal from polluting the environment.

When batteries are just left to decay photochemical reactions can release greenhouse gases, and the harmful heavy metals can be absorbed into soil or find their way into water supplies, lakes and rivers.

Incorrectly disposed batteries can also pose a fire hazard. Forty firefighters were sent to battle a blaze in a landfill site in Dunbar at the beginning of the year. The fire was thought to have started when a spark from a lithium-ion battery ignited surrounding rubbish.

Recycling in the UK

In the UK, any company selling more than 32kg of portable batteries a year must provide a take-back scheme, and they must accept all types of battery, except those from motor vehicles or industrial equipment. The collection points at supermarkets thus do accept all kinds, not just AA.

The UK has battery recycling targets set by the EU.

 While it failed to meet these in previous years, the target was met in 2018. The UK collected 17,811 tonnes of used batteries against a target of 17,540.

This is thought to have saved around 12,000 tonnes of CO2, but it still represents just 45% of all the batteries placed into the market in the previous three years.

Concerns have also been raised that lead-acid batteries are being included in these figures when most lead-acid batteries are not included in the targets.

It is interesting that while all the battery brands in this guide are recyclable, there do not appear to be any batteries out there that are advertised as being made from recycled materials.

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Child safety warning

Increasing numbers of children have been admitted to hospital having swallowed button batteries. The consequences can be very serious and sometimes fatal. If a lithium battery becomes lodged in the oesophagus it can create an electric circuit, due to its higher voltage, which can cause serious burns.

Visit buttonbatterysafety.com for advice on ensuring batteries are kept out of harm’s way and what to do if you suspect a child has swallowed one.

Charging forward – what’s next for batteries?

Professor John Goodenough invented the lithium-ion battery in the 1980s.

Fortunately, the scientific community is not applying the inventors surname to the battery itself. Battery technology is the focus of intense research, due to the urgent need to transition to renewable energy and the rising demand for portable electronics.

There are possibilities for the next generation of batteries to be based on more abundant elements such as sodium, found in all kinds of salt, or aluminium. This could, in theory, mean that the elements in batteries can be extracted in locations which would cause the least damage, with vicinity to local communities, shipping miles and the local environment all taken into account.

Other technologies such as metal-air batteries, solid-state batteries and the use of silicon are all vying to try and increase capacity, and also safety, while reducing production costs.

The fact that rising demands for batteries are, in part, fuelled by a desire to reduce environmental impact, could mean that ethical considerations are given more scrutiny in the battery industry than in others.

This year, Amnesty International publicly challenged electric car manufacturers to create a truly ethical battery within five years. Kumi Naidoo, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, said:

With demand for batteries soaring, now is the time for a drastic overhaul of our energy sources that prioritises protection of human rights and the environment. With a climate crisis looming, consumers have the right to demand that products marketed as the ethical choice really stand up to scrutiny.

We need to change course now, or those least responsible for climate change – indigenous communities and children – will pay the price for the shift away from fossil fuels.

However, we may not be buying separate batteries for that much longer, as more and more products are switching to inbuilt rechargeable batteries. This does mean that people are forced to use rechargeables, but all batteries are perishable, and it can make the whole product die with the battery.

Prolonging battery life

The following table provides a quick run-down on how not to run-down different types of batteries as well as some general information about how long you can expect them to last.

  Alkaline Lithium-metal NiMH Lithium-ion
Rechargeable? Non-rechargeable Non-rechargable Rechargeable: 700-1,000 life cycles Rechargable: 600-1,000 life cycles
Run-time (Devices vary so comparison based on number of photos taken on a digital camera with an AA battery) 100 690 600 Unknown (AA have not been available long enough)
How to charge N/A N/A

It is better to fast charge if possible.

Stop charging if battery becomes warm.

Always use the charger designed for your battery.

A partial charge is better than a full charge.

A partial discharge is actually also better than a full discharge (no 'memory effect' like old NiCad batteries which used to lose capacity if not used).

Turn off devices when charging the battery. Always use the charger designed for your battery.

Shelf-life 5-10 Years 10-12 Years 3-5 Years 2-4 Years
Self-discharge rate Should lose around 2-3% per year. Should lose around 10% of it's charge over 5 years if not in use. Should lose 10-15% in 24h, then 10-15% per month Should lose 5% in 24h, then 1-2% per month.
How to store for prolonged shelf-life and reduced self-discharge Remove from the device and store below 25 degrees celcius (do not freeze). Remove from the device and store below 25 degrees celcius (do not freeze).

Remove from the device and store below 25°C (do not freeze).

Can be stored with any charge level but should be fully recharged once a year if storing long term.

Remove from the device and store below 25°C (do not freeze) with a charge of around 40-50%.

You may need to recharge to this level about once every 6 months.

Types of battery AA, AAA, C, D, N, 9 Volt and button/coin batteries. AA, AAA, 9 Volt, button/ coin batteries. AA, AAA, C, D & 9 Volt.

Mostly button batteries and power banks (as well as phone/laptop batteries).

Other sizes like AA/AAA are just coming onto the market.

Company behind the brand

Berkshire Hathaway, owner of Duracell, is the holding company of Warren Buffet’s corporate empire. The company’s investments and activities have led to Buffet becoming one of the richest people in the world with a net worth of around $82 billion.

Berkshire Hathaway has significant investments in a range of companies including Kraft Heinz, Dairy Queen, Fruit of the Loom and American Express. The company has very few policies itself and states that reporting and policies take place at subsidiary level.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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