The question of what type of batteries are best for the environment is a pretty fraught one. There are actually many factors to consider when deciding what types of batteries have the lowest impact on the environment. And when it comes down to comparing rechargeable batteries with single-use, the question remains difficult to answer because it all depends on how they are used and what they are made of.
A good rule of thumb though is to look for the companies that make sustainability and eco-consciousness the main selling point of their batteries. Pale Blue Earth out of Utah, for example, produce eco-friendly smart batteries that can be charged by USB. These batteries are all about sustainability and effectiveness, and they are simply more energy efficient than other types of batteries. Energy efficiency, in whatever way that manifests, is always the way to go where the environment is concerned.
So, to get back to the main question – are rechargeable batteries actually better for the environment? They are usually sold as being so and, in the case of batteries like those produced by Pale Blue Earth, often boast great energy efficiency. Yet single-use batteries have their advantages too.
The Most Important Comparison
When truly weighing up the environmental impact of single-use and rechargeable batteries, you should keep one essential comparison in mind. This is the impact of energy use versus the impact of waste. Both things are said to be environmentally harmful. A rechargeable battery will not be thrown away for a very long time, but it will regularly use up electricity for each of its charge cycles. A single-use battery will never eat up any of your home’s electricity, but over the lifespan of a typical rechargeable battery, you could find yourself tossing a fair few of these kinds of batteries into the trash.
The Cradle to Grave Approach
And the environmental concerns do not stop with the question of electricity use versus waste. How batteries are made and disposed of is also vitally important. To accurately assess a battery’s environmental impact, you need to consider how it is made, how it is used, and then how it is disposed of. This is known as the “cradle to grave” approach.
Rechargeable batteries can be made of a number of things, but most often they are lithium-ion cells. Lithium-ion brings energy efficiency to these batteries that can be beneficial to the environment. Unfortunately, their manufacture poses some concerns. Nickel batteries also have the same problem.
And at the other end of the lifecycle, batteries will also have to be disposed of. Some battery materials are currently recycled in different proportions than others. For single-use batteries (the ones that will be thrown out more often), the opportunity for recycling is widespread, something that can offset the waste problem.
It’s all About Use
As you might have guessed by now, there isn’t really one definitive answer to our question. Ultimately, it all comes down to use. For high-consumption devices, therefore, rechargeable batteries are undoubtedly the best because regular charge cycles are less damaging to the environment than constantly throwing out spent batteries. For smoke detectors, alarm clocks, and other low-consumption devices though, single-use might be preferable simply because they will last a long time, can be recycled in the end, and will not need any recharging.
There is a good deal more that could be said about these two types of batteries. But it must be said that rechargeables have the edge in most circumstances. Keep those single-use around for your alarm clock though.