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Batteries are so small that it’s easy to believe they’re harmless, so who can blame us when we throw them in the bin? Unfortunately, the little devices that power so much of the technology we now consider indispensable (such as watches and mobile phones) are anything but. Read on to find out more about their potential effect on the environment, and what you can do to avoid adding to the problem.

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Toxic ingredients

Batteries inevitably contain a number of either toxic or corrosive chemicals, but so far manufacturers and environmental groups have failed to find much common ground in their debate about how these chemicals should be produced and disposed of. Until these issues are fully resolved, it is up to the individual to look for products that have the least impact on the environment.

Nickel cadmium batteries, or NiCads, are the ones most often sold as ‘rechargeable’, a fact that rightly attracts many environmentally-concerned buyers. Nevertheless, cadmium is still a highly toxic heavy metal. To get around this problem, the five main manufacturers (Ever Ready, Panasonic, Rayovac, Uniross and Varta) have facilities to collect their own-brand NiCads and send them away for recycling. Just return the batteries to the relevant company when their four to five year life-span is up.

Other battery types

Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries avoid the cadmium problem, and are generally longer-lasting than NiCads. Unfortunately, at the moment they tend to be available only as battery packs for camcorders, computers and mobile phones. As these batteries become more widespread, it must be hoped that the manufacturers will put in place a clear and accessible recycling system that their customers will want to adhere to.

Zinc and alkaline batteries are also rechargeable, although they are far less effective than NiCads. The main problem with these battery types is that there are virtually no facilities for recycling them in the UK. While the industry maintains that their impact on landfills is negligible, environmentalists are convinced that they will leave problem chemicals in the ground for future generations.

Button cells

Button cells are the small flat batteries used in watches, hearing aids and some cameras. Their formulations include lithium, zinc air, silver oxide and alkaline. From this list, silver oxide is the best option; lithium batteries should be avoided if possible. Mercuric oxide cells used to be available but these have been phased out in recent years following concerns about the toxic effects of mercury on the environment.

What next?

The elimination of mercury is a significant step forward in the fight against battery waste, and there have also been considerable improvements in the collection of NiCads from larger commercial users of power tools, mobile phones and emergency lighting. However, with the average household using over 20 batteries a year, and only 2 per cent of these being recycled, there is much left to be done.

So far, the number of reprocessing facilities has begun to increase, and some local authorities, including Bristol, have started to collect batteries as part of their recycling schemes. In the ideal future, though, all battery waste would be collected and recycled. For the industry this would mean proper labelling and the establishment of recycling schemes for all batteries. For ethical shoppers, the message should be to buy rechargeable batteries from retailers that promise to accept them back for recycling, either as single batteries or as packs (or to avoid using electronics that require batteries).

Check for price searches and ethical information on batteries – or why not eliminate them entirely by choosing an appliance that uses renewable energy such as wind or solar power? See the section on Energy Efficiency in the Home for more information.

Ethical Comparison – Batteries Rankings Detailed Table

Buy our detailed Ethical Research Reports. See the findings behind companies’ ethical ratings, as featured in The Good Shopping Guide. Several different product sectors available covering hundreds of consumer brands.

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Energizer, Ever Ready, Rayovac, Varta, Boots, Panasonic, Uniross, Philips
Sony, Kodak, Duracell

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