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Why don’t we phase out disposable batteries?

Bird's eye view of lots of batteries

The phasing out of energy-guzzling incandescent light bulbs is almost complete. To further help the environment, should disposable batteries be targeted next in favour of rechargeable ones?

Disposable batteries are a waste of money and a waste of space. Not only are they much more expensive to use compared to rechargeable batteries, but also their ‘disposable’ nature means many of us throw dozens of them away without a second thought.

These then end up in landfill, where they leak harmful chemicals into the earth. And what about recycling them? Well that’s a nice idea, but recent research has found that half the population has never recycled a battery. Not surprising, as when we investigated battery recycling last November we found several shops were flouting EU rules and neglecting to offer recycling boxes.

Ditch disposables

Clearly, disposable batteries are bad for the environment – so why doesn’t the government ban them outright? There may need to be a few exceptions (9V disposable batteries for smoke alarms perhaps) but rechargeable batteries could replace disposables in most cases.

Some people – many whom have never tried rechargeable batteries – moan about the hassle of recharging them, but if we had to use them surely we would get used to it?

Recharging your batteries is no more hassle than recharging your phone – something many of us do daily without a second thought. And the fact that you can now buy ‘hybrid’ batteries, which come pre-charged and hold their charge impressively well, mean they are pretty much just as convenient as disposables.

And financially? Well on that level a ban would certainly act in our favour. A pack of rechargeable batteries may be pricier than a pack of disposables – but the fact you can reuse them up to 1,000 times means each pack saves you hundreds of pounds over its lifetime, compared to using disposables.

Am I missing something, or is it clear that batteries should start being phased out now? Of course some people will kick up a fuss, like they did with light bulbs, but I can’t see any other reason not to.

Should we phase out disposable batteries?

No - rechargables aren't a good alternative (42%, 254 Votes)

Yes - they are wasteful (36%, 222 Votes)

I'm still confused about what's best (22%, 133 Votes)

Total Voters: 609

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Comments

Ah, batteries, that mysterious package containing an amount of energy that is anybody’s guess.

I think non rechargeable batteries should be phased out simply to stop consumers being ripped off by their manufacturers! Why are they allowed to get away with un-measurable terms like ‘very high capacity’ or ‘high power’? What does that mean?! What other product can you buy where the amount of what you are purchasing is a complete guess?!

You can measure the capacity of rechargeable batteries in mAh – this might not mean much to the consumer but at least you can compare like with like against price and generally a 2300mAh battery will give you just that.

Even the Which tests are ambiguous using phrases like ‘low drain’ and ‘very high drain’ to describe usage. If you know the wattage and the voltage and know how long the appliance worked for you should be able to work out a battery’s mAh.

Or am I missing something?

Paul McCredie says:
21 January 2011

Disposable battery manufactures that provide specification data for thier products do in fact quote the capacity in mA/hr

Totally agree Paul

Slacker says:
17 January 2011

From my own experience when I used to have a GPS that used AA batteries I found that with standard batteries I had to replace them about once for every ~40 hours of use.

When I tried using rechargeable batteries I would get ~20 hours of use when brand new and after about 10 charges they dropped to around ~10 hours. I tried several brands and never found ones that worked well.

I just could not justify the reduced cost in batteries over the long term when weighed against the annoyance of constantly replacing my dead batteries. By the end I was keeping 3 sets of batteries in the car at all times just to make sure I could find my next client.

Thankfully my new GPS uses the cars power so I no longer need batteries but that experience has kept me from bothering with the few batteries I still use. (Mainly just remotes anymore)

Leonard Bruce says:
23 January 2011

I use re-chargeable batteries, these do have their capacity shown in LARGE letters and are extremely reliable.

There is also the problem that many pieces of older equipment will not work with rechargeable batteries as the 1.2 volt in insufficient. Plus the internal impedance does not allow maximum power transfer anyway.

I would go with this but even some newer products don’t work as well with rechargeable batteries though the only things I own that require traditional batteries (i.e not mobiles, etc) are remote controls, a wireless door chime and a smoke detector. I wouldn’t trust a rechargeable battery in a smoke detector.

I agree that disposable batteries are a waste – though I only tend to use them in my TV remote controls, and those seem to last for an age.

Though I do have questions around whether rechargeable batteries hold their charge any where near as long as disposable ones. Also, are rechargeable batteries as recyclable? Are the chemicals inside them more harmful to the environment?

YouKnowWho says:
18 January 2011

Recargables run at 1.2v, whereas standard batteries run at 1.5v. Ok, not an issue for most applications but some, including my wall clock, refuse to accept 1.2v.

As for recycling, there’s been a bucket for batteries at the local HWRC for years, so to not recycle them is unacceptable.

Phil says:
18 January 2011

“Recargables run at 1.2v, whereas standard batteries run at 1.5v. Ok, not an issue for most applications”

Some items, electronic flash guns for example, may suffer terminal damage though. Check the instructions before replacing standard batteries with rechargeable ones.

I’m with slacker on this one. I have a camera (W? Best Buy from a few years ago), that if I put rechargeable batteries in, pack it in its case then put it in my bag and use it later that day or the next day, it shows battery low as soon as I turn it on. I manage about 10 snaps before it packs up completely. The spare set of – freshly charged – rechargeables then go in and I manage about another 5 mins of usage.

Non-rechargeable last much longer. And it pains me to say this, as I really think we shouldn’t have so many disposables hanging around. But if they’re not up to the job – we’re probably wasting more energy/carbon etc recharging them than is involved in making them.

I wonder if it depends on the rechargeable batteries. I used to have a Sony camera that’d last a good couple of days with its AA rechargeables. I used to have two pairs and keep recharging them – which is much cheaper than the rechargeable lithium ones most cameras use now. When I put in some disposable ones, the camera could take one photo without dying.

Was Hazel deliberately trying to be provocative?
I agree that it would be ideal to use rechargeables all the time and use them whenever possible.
However , as mentioned above:-
1. Some of my electronic equipment specifically bans the use of rechargeables, presumable due to some internal resistance issue.
2. Some of my equipment doesn’t work at 1.2v
3. NiCads and NiMh batteries discharge themselves quite quickly when not in use, so they are no use for low drain items such as clocks or doorbells, unless you don’t mind changing clock batteries every few weeks, or having your doorbell stop working.
4. Most rechargables contain a lower amount of energy, even when fully charged, than a good alkaline battery.
5. You have to wait for NiCds and (I think) NiMHs to go flat before you recharge them to avoid the memory effect and loss of capacity. So with the short lifetime you generally have to carry spares with you for when they suddenly die.
Perhaps it doesn’t have to be like this. As far as I know, Li-Ion batteries don’t self discharge or have a memory. However, they don’t seem to be available in standard sizes or voltages. Perhaps this is technically impossible, but if it could be done, then Hazel’s ideas would be valid. As it is, I think we are stuck with a mixture until some standards body such as VESA comes up with a new set of standards for batteries and equipment interfaces to use them.

Paul McCredie says:
21 January 2011

NiMH cells don’t tend to suffer as much memory effect as NiCd Cells. In fact it is my understanding that for most practical purposes you can ignore memory effect when using NiMH cells.

Bechet says:
18 January 2011

I’m a selfish soul ~ I don’t like the eco friendly light bulbs because they’re not as bright as nasty old incandescents and don’t illuminate immediately but I put up with them in rooms where it doesn’t matter ~ ie not on staircases. As others have pointed out rechargeable batteries with disposable equivalents are usually unsatisfactory ~ they don’t work in some appliances, are unreliable in others and if you use them in a camera (in which they die very soon) you must carry spares or risk being left with a useless camera. Li-ion batteries are the exception although it’s advisable to carry a spare even with those. Provided we dispose of disposables properly (and it’s easy to do so these days) I think the tree huggers should stop fussing.

I use very few batteries,
Three are used in clocks, just cheap ones, and last for several years. The one in my alarm clock is about 5 years old! I am not knowledgeable about this subject, but it seems to me that rechargeable batteries would not be a good idea for these.

As other have said Rechargeables have a number of drawbacks:
High initial cost
even worse for the environment than disposables when they are no longer serviceable
Capable of destroying equipment
Insufficient power for some equipment
Unsuitable for smoke alarms, clocks and some remote control units
Have to be looked after and recharged very carefully to get a decent life span out of them
Chargers left on when not needed account for several million pounds worth of electricity each year in the UK (incl ‘phone chargers too)

There are similarities to the energy saving lightbulbs which are, like many computer products of the past, another example of the public being expected to put up with technology which is not yet proven and to pay for the privilege.

There is a certain irony in the fact that many Energy Monitors won;t work on rechargeables and only offer their full range of features when plugged into the mains!!!!!

I use rechargeable where they come with the equipment (e.g. mobile ‘phone, slr camera) and I use disposables in any other equipment. Where possible I used mains equipment only and unplug when not in use. It’s a bit cumbersome but it gives me the best of all worlds currently available.

The question posed doesn’t have a one size fits all answer; and that’s the nub of the problem. We need to be allowed the flexibility to choose and we need to have the education (i.e. facts provided in easy and clear terms) to let us make the choice sensibly.

Just like lightbulbs…………

Hi Hazel,

Yes, I have a Wattson from DIY Kyoto, which to be honest has been a very bad buy because the software (Holmes) that comes with it to connect to an iMac doesn’t actually work and DUY Kyoto’s support is diabolical.
However, in answer to the relevant aspects for this convo, the sensor for the meter end of the set up cannot be used with rechargeable batteries (and it gets through 4 AA disposables about every 15 weeks so it’s not very battery-efficient).
The main unit has built in batteries which are rechargeable, but in fact they last such a short time that using it plugged into the mains all the time is the only sensible option if you actually want to collect data.
I’ve looked into other monitors but the majority that I have found also take only disposable batteries in the sensor and many also won’t take rechargeables in the main unit. However, the main reason I’ve not bought another is that I cannot find ANY except the Wattson that even claim to work with a Mac computer.
I’ve read the recent Which? report on EM’s and sadly that hasn’t really helped me to find a suitable replacement, though it was a valuable and informative report in many other ways.
I’ve had it a

Hi again Hazel,

I’ve heard of the Current Cost Envir, but other than in Which? magazines / web pages I’ve not come across any mention of it and, as you say, it is not yet available and has been delayed already.

The info about not using rechargeable in the Wattson came quite by chance: I have tried countless times to get the Tech Support folk at DIY Kyoto to assist with the software issue and they basically ignore me completely. Of the few responses I have had none have addressed the questions I am asking about the Mac software not working properly, but in one of the very early responses almost 2 years ago they did send me a list of “common problems” and one of those was unreliable data collection due to run down disposable batteries or the use of rechargeable, which were “not recommended”.

Frankly I wish I had the time and money and energy to take DIY Kyoto to Trading Standards, but I just haven’t. It was a total waste of £99 and I’m pleased that Which? seemed to more or less concur with this in the report last December.

Back on topic for this convo though, and it does highlight that it is most certainly not only old appliances that have trouble with rechargeables.

tim white says:
21 January 2011

I have not read through all the above but, if no one has mentioned it, you can very often buy premium makes of battery (Duracell etc) at hugely reduced prices in street markets especially in London.Never buy them in supermarkets or high street shops.

If charging was really practicable we’d all do it. I’m very technically inclined and I have done it but it’s just a **** nuisance. Pete Fisk above says it all.

ynot.today says:
21 January 2011

I have not read all the comments so far therefore, I do not know whether this has been mentioned already?
I have bought online a re-charger for ordinary disposable batteries from Gizoo – formerly Gadget Store – price about £17. I have only had it a short time but have found it appears to work well. I do not know how long a recharged disposable battery continues to give charge but both AA and AAA alkaline batteries are still performing well after about a week’ s intermittment use.

Hazel – If you recharge a disposable then it still is a 1.5 volt battery and will work on equipment that will not work with a 1,2 Volt rechargeable. A short time is better than no time. A clock is a usual device that needs 1.5 volt only – Technically the voltage is the “driving force” or EMF – so a clock motor will not run at the right speed. The current is the amount of electrons that can pushed through the equipment at one time – this depends on the impedance – sort of like the resistance. The ” total power” is measured in ampere hours – the more current taken the shorter time it will last. But there is a limit to the amount of current taken without damage to either the battery or the equipment.

My Nikon SB600 uses rechargeables and will last well over two months on standby – and will take around 400 photos.

I understand that some rechargeable batteries contain cadmium and some disposables – mostly the small button-like ones, contain mercury, as do low-energy light bulbs. Both of these are intensely toxic substances which need to be recycled carefully, and certainly not left to leak on landfills.The answer, surely, is for effective and – particularly – readily available recycling facilities. Only three shops near me have battery-recycling baskets, and none of them are in an obvious place in the shop – you really have to look for them. And I don’t know anywhere that recycles low-energy bulbs, or the ever-growing pile of obsolete electronic stuff in my spare-room cupboard, all of it containing gallium arsenide and other environmental nasties.
That said, the rechargeable batteries in my two cameras, mobile phone, razor, and digital radio have been recharged many times over in the last three years and still are going strong, All these batteries came with the equipment they power – perhaps if all battery-powered devices came supplied with rechargeable batteries then the demand for disposable ones night decrease.

John says:
21 January 2011

There’s rechargeable and rechargeable. Some are quite good, but never last as long as disposable but some are much less good. We can’t change to fully rechargeable until we get both consistency and staying power in rechargebles. Maximum 1000 recharges taking account of cost and recharging electricity and convenience – value hummm. I have both for different uses AND always recycle both when depleted.

George says:
21 January 2011

I’ve used rechargeable batteries very successfully for several years for torches, bike lights, and bathroom radio. The key was getting an intelligent charger – fast charging and cutoff when finished and having a spare set (AA and AAA). BUT there is an issue with using rechargeables – their voltage drops suddenly as the charge runs out. Disposables have a gentler curve – you get warning that the battery is about to fail. There are a just a few applications where early warning of power loss is necessary – the one I know is an avalanche tranceiver. When you turn it on in the morning and pile your ski clothes on top, you need to know that it’ll still be working at the end of the afternoon. That wouldn’t be the case with rechargeable batteries.

Hello all, great to see this sparking a relatively balanced debate. We’ve now added a poll for you to vote on, so make sure to have your say on whether you think disposable batteries should be phased out. It’ll be interesting to see which opinion wins out!

George says:
21 January 2011

Lots of good info in PeteFisk’s comments, however I’d separate performance of NiCd from NiMH a bit more. My understanding is that unlike NiCd, which really were pretty useless, the newer NiMH cells don’t suffer from the notorious ‘memory effect’, neither do they self-discharge very fast – I’m using one in an alarm clock. The NiMH cells I have must have been recharged (sometimes from part discharge) around 50 times and so far are going strong.

Almost all the out and about bits on the Which? Podcasts (which.co.uk/podcasts) come to you courtesy of rechargeable batteries in little audio recorders. I use them all the time for radio and audio and have about 18 on the go. So far, after about three years, I have recycled four batteries. I would have got through scores if not hundreds of disposables. If rechargeables are more toxic, and if they are less powerful than throwaway ones, then there needs to be a total audit on power, durability, cost and brand. If it can be shown that they are greener and leaner and meaner then the world would be a better place. If only more gadgets’ AA rechargeables could be recharged via usb ports!

George says:
21 January 2011

Fail to start charge? My Boots NiMH charger (GPPB02BS model) with four Boots 2200mAH cells flashes the AA/AAA LED and doesn’t start the charge occasionally in cold weather. I originally wondered if the batteries had worn out, but I think it’s simply that they’ve been too cold. After a gentle warming, they recharge fine. Something to do with temperature-dependent internal resistance, I think.

How many products will also need to be ditched with any switch to rechargables only? Some products currently available specify that rechargable batteries should not be used.

Something for Which? to look into perhaps if, for environment purposes it is sensible to drive forward a switch from dispoable to rechargables.