The Great Debate Between Disposable and Rechargable Batteries

Being environmentally friendly is often extremely inconvenient (CFL bulbs that give off weird light) or just plain expensive (solar panels that never recover their costs).

But sometimes, we get it just right. We find products that are easier on both our planet and our pocket books, and actually make life easier. This is especially true in the case of rechargeable batteries.

One typical AA battery runs approximately 0.35 cents, while the same size rechargeable battery costs over five times as much.

For example, a four pack of Duracell Rechargeable batteries range in price from $15 to $18 depending on the vendor. In contrast, the regular alkaline Duracell four-pack runs approximately $6. Further, rechargeable batteries don’t charge themselves. The consumer also has to spend money on the charger(s) itself.

According to those familiar with rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, when cost is the primary discriminator, low current draw devices do not warrant the expense of rechargeable batteries. Low current draw devices include wall clocks, radios, smoke detectors, remote controls and programmable thermostats.

The batteries in these devices are changed so infrequently that it would be difficult to get the maximum amount out of an investment in rechargeable batteries if placed in these devices. Typical alkaline (non-chargeable) batteries can hold a charge for years when not in use, and accordingly, may be the better choice for items that go without use for a long period of time.

Rechargeable batteries are intended for moderate to high use current draw devices that are used moderately. Examples of such devices include toys, laptop computers, MP3 players, and electronic games. These devices require battery changes more frequently.

Despite the fact that the initial expenditure for the rechargeable batteries and charging unit, if you change batteries routinely on heavily used devices, rechargeable batteries are likely to pay off in the long run.

That is not to say that rechargeable batteries last forever. To give you an idea, in a typical digital camera, alkaline batteries may only last from 20 to 40 hours and can only be used once. NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) rechargeable batteries last nearly 1.5 hours and can be recharged up to 1,000 times. It should be noted that there are four types of rechargeable batteries, each of which can be used for different devices and circumstances.

After considering the economics of the chargeable versus rechargeable decision, there is the impact that batteries have on the environment. From an environmental standpoint, rechargeable batteries are much better.

Throwing away old batteries can create environmental problems by leaking chemicals and bloating landfills. Batteries contain chemicals such as nickel, mercury and lead acid. If disposable batteries are thrown away with the regular trash, they could potentially pollute lakes and streams as the metals vaporize into the air.

As a result of the Mercury-Containing Battery Management Act passed by Congress in 1996, most disposable alkaline batteries contain little or no mercury. They’re now considered nontoxic enough to toss out with the household trash.

Nevertheless, in large quantities, such as in landfills, disposable batteries may eventually release noxious substances which will trickle down into the surrounding soil and water supply creating health risks for the public and animals.

Although rechargeable batteries still contain toxic metals required for their production, by using them, consumers are limiting the number to be thrown away. To play it safe, it is advisable that consumers recycle all batteries, whether they are disposable or rechargeable.

It’s important to think about in what device the batteries will be used. Although perhaps more expensive initially, rechargeable batteries can pay off if used in moderate to high use current draw devices and will certainly benefit the environment.

Published or Updated: April 4, 2013
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Antonio M. Goicouria says:

    Nice article, very informative. Thanks

  2. Rich says:

    Late to the party here, but when considering single use vs. rechargables, you need to figure in the cost of production of the batteries and packaging, and the transportation costs of getting them to the store. Think about it this way: Say you get only(!) 100 recharges out of a pack of rechargables, but would have needed 10 packs of single use batteries over the same time for the same devices, due to rechargables not lasting as long, etc…

    When it is all said and done, with the rechargables you are:
    -tossing 90% less into a landfill when the rechargables eventually no longer hold a charge
    -consumed 90% less raw materials to produce the paper, ink, and plastic used for the packaging
    -used less chemical compounds (dunno what sort or exactly how much less, but it has to be less…) and 90% less metal for the battery casings
    -saved on the energy needed to power the machinery for the production of the batteries and packaging
    -90% less mass needed to be transported by ship/rail/truck/whatever, which if done on a large scale has potential to reduce petroleum consumption, with all of the attendent benefits.

    I’m not a “green” guy by any means, but we should all be using rechargables where they make sense.

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