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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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Edward Senior says:
21 January 2011

There is no doubt that the current type of disposable batteries will be phased out eventually as a consequence of new technology being introduced into the market.

In the meantime however:
Rechargeable batteries which to-date have not been known for retaining their charge longer than a couple of months before requiring recharge have a new competitor in the market place, this new battery is constructed from a combination of disposable and rechargeable battery elements which once charged has a shelf life of a year or more, can be charged in excess of 1000 times making it ideal for the likes of cameras, kids toys and the like.

As for depleted disposable batteries don’t be too quick throwing them away as you can buy a special battery charger designed to examine, and inform you if the battery is capable of being charged and then charging it. Such chargers can recharge exhausted batteries several times before they need to be recycled.

Neil Valentine says:
21 January 2011

I would not object to the banning of the old zinc chloride batteries which can adventagously be replaced with rechargables.
However the are osccasions where alkaline batteries with their 3 to 4 year shelf life are invaluable, for example low current equipment such as clocks, temperature monitoring equipment, alarms, remote controls, etc where the in-use life of the battery often exceeds a year or two, somthing in my experience, even the ready charged rechargables can not come neer to matching.

Peter Hutchison says:
21 January 2011

I have rechargeable batteries but they are not suitable for low consumption equipment because I think they self discharge meaning that they do not last nearly as long as disposable batteries in my smoke alarms or my cat scarers. The best disposable batteries last for many months.

They also do not work well in my electric shaver. Why this should bee I haven’t investigated but maybe they have a higher internal resistance than the best disposables. The shaver certainly has less power even when the rechargeable battery is freshly charged.

Rechargeable batteries do not run down – they just suddenly stop working..

I mainly use rechargeables (Recyko) but was unimpressed to read some of Hazel’s comments. In very low drain appliances, like sensible radios (i.e. analogue radios**), clocks and smoke alarms, rechargeables will need recharging long before alkalines would have run down. So it’s entirely wrong to say “Disposable batteries are a waste of money and a waste of space” and “they are much more expensive to use than rechargeable batteries”.

As for recycling, even rechargeables need recycling one day, and do more damage than alkalines if dumped into landfill. My phone batteries (12 in total) need changing every couple of years.

And then we get to the throwaway “some people will kick up a fuss, like they did with light bulbs”. Well, the people who kicked up a fuss were right, weren’t they? OK, the situation’s better now than it was, but I still can’t buy 60W-equivalent mini-SES candle CFLs that don’t stick out of the shades, and that’s just one example. So what should I do? Throw the light fittings into landfill and buy new ones that someone’s burned a lot of energy making and transporting? Even then, I’d find the “60W-equivalent” bulbs are actually only about 45W-equivalent. And they contain nasty mercury, the same mercury that’s been banned from barometers (how many barometers get thrown away each year?!). I do use CFLs where it’s sensible but not (as with batteries) in low-use fittings such as the pantry or cloakroom where the incandescent bulbs haven’t been changed in the 12 years since they were installed.

I’ll go back in my box now. Yes, people should be encouraged to make more use of rechargeable batteries, but the idea of banning disposables is a nonsense.

** The only people who need expensive to buy and run DAB radios are those who want to pause/rewind radio or listen to stations that aren’t available on analogue (and, even then, they could listen on a PC, streaming the output with a £10 USB device to an analogue radio or hi-fi if desired).

I was appalled to discover recently that Aldi have stopped stocking rechargeable batteries. They only have non-rechargeables. The assistant said that he thought it was because the rechargeables didn’t last so long so weren’t very good value. I regularly use rechargeables, some of which are over three years old. That’s value!

Ron Bartholomew says:
21 January 2011

A fully charged disposable battery has a terminal voltage of 1.5volts whereas a chargeable battery has a terminal voltage of !.2 volts. With some devices requiring as many as six batteries this results in a reduction of 1.8 volts, more than one battery! Furthermore, in my experience, the performance of rechargeable batteries falls away long long before they have been recharged a thousand times.

I have seen adverts for chargers which can be used to re-charge ‘disposable batteries. Are they of any use? It would be nice to see the results of a proper test of these devices.

John says:
21 January 2011

I have been using Uniross ‘Multi Usage’ AA rechargeable batteries with the Uniross Smart Charger for a couple of years now and find that they last as long as the average alkaline battery and hold their charge when not in use.

For example, in one evening a year ago, I took more than 200 photos using a Nikon Speedlight SB 600 flash loaded with the Uniross batteries and a year later, the same batteries are still in the flash and still performing without a recharge.

I have them in a portable razor and portable radio and their longevity is excellent.

Uniross Smart Charger + 4 batteries, £12.98.

Leonard Bruce says:
23 January 2011

I agree. For over two years I have been using the same Uniross 1300Mha re-chargeable batteries and Smart Charger for similar usage eg. Camera, portable radio, door bell, torches, etc. They have an extraordinarily long life between charges and charging cost are negligible. Non-rechargeable batteries are a costly alternative and disposing of them is a pain. When I used them they inevitably ended in my black bin. Two years usage would have filled the bin!

Paul Taylor says:
21 January 2011

In view of the voltage and disposal issues I suggest that we should keep the present choice of chargeable or non chargeable batteries but impose a temporary tax which can be redeemed when returning the spent battery for disposal. I would suggest a minimum of 50p per battery or at least an amount that makes it worthwhile returning them. This would make rechargeable batteries a more attractive option and encourage the safe disposal of all batteries.

Jeff says:
21 January 2011

There is a place for both types of batteries. At home, it is feasible to use rechargeables for most if not all uses, as the charger would be readily available when the batteries run down.
But, thinking about the fact that they self-discharge in a few months, my biggest fear if disposables were not available is that my LED camping torches would have to have the rechargeable batteries removed and recharged at home before each outing, making impromptu camping excursions impossible.

As I stated above, there is a place for both.

gazak says:
22 January 2011

Firstly, there are two main types of disposable batteries, zinc carbon and alkaline. Zinc carbon are the cheapest and also the shortest life disposable batteries, alkaline have at least double the life of zinc carbon. Phase out zinc carbon batteries and you automatically reduce the number of batteries to be disposed of. For long term low drain applications rechargeables are NOT suitable, alkaline disposables ARE. The reverse applies for high drain applications like digital cameras. I have a digital camera that takes AA size batteries and I always carry a second set of rechargeables PLUS a couple of sets of alkaline disposables as an emergency backup when I am out using the camera. Rechargeables can drop out, I lost a recharegable a few weeks back and had to buy a set of four to replace one battery, not very economical! There is a very strong case for keeping disposable batteries alongside rechargeables and will be for a long time!

Jerry Evans says:
22 January 2011

Worryingly, it looks like Which? is thinking of taking the same anti-consumer line on batteries as they did over incandescent light bulbs.Just like light bulbs, there are occasions when rechargeable are best and occasions when they are not. If there is an environmental cost, then this should be reflected in higher tax rates rather than an outright ban. I have never forgiven Which? for supporting the ban on incandescent light bulbs, and I hope they won’t try a similar trick again. They are supposed to support consumer rights not take them away!

I absolutely agree on this. Which? is very good in many ways, but occasionally they do let us down very drastically. Incandescent light bulbs is one, if Which? support a ban on disposable batteries that will be another and not fighting for the retention / return of hot and cold fill washers is another than I am especially bitter about (though I acknowledge that Which? are now stating on part of their site that Hot and Cold fill is better, but it’s hardly exerting pressure on the government and the manufacturers to give us what we need.

The conversation, which is fair enough, as far as it goes, misses a key issue. This is the design of the electronic equipment for which one uses batteries. One should ask the questions:
Why does some equipment run well using 1.5v standard batteries, fail to work satisfactorily with 1.25v rechargeables? I think you see where I am going.
Why does some equipment cope well with rechargeaboes, whilst others do not?
Let me illustrate this with an example of 2 makes of DECT phone. Both are designed to use rechargeables, and have a docking station, which I find a problem because of the memory effect. I have developed the habit of allowing the rechargeables to run out, and replace them, with newly charged examples. This is how I discovered that the Panasonic (expensive!) stopped, even though there was enough charge left in the rechargeables to run my (cheap) Coccon (from Lidl) for a further 2 days.
In order to use rechargeables in a way that we would find acceptable, manufacturers must first come up with sensible designs for using more of the power in whatever battery they choose to use.
Do not assume that any battery of any kind has used all its charge when the electronic equipment it powers gives up. You may find (as I do) sufficient charge left to power, say, a torch, for many weeks.

The discharge characteristics of the two types of battery are different – The internal impedances of the two are also also different. In fact the low and high drain batteries have different impedances.too

For a piece of electronics to function at maximum effectiveness – The impedance and discharge characteristics of the battery need to match the impedance and output characteristics of the equipment .

Many individual electronic components are designed to work at 1.5 volts – so if a 1.2 volt battery is used – The equipment acts as though the battery is discharged – and as impedance changes (lowers) at the lower voltage – it quickly drains the battery which wasn’t designed t o be used with it.

Leonard Bruce says:
23 January 2011

Re: Re-chargeable batteries. I have been using the same eight [8] AA batteries for over two years. They have a quite punishing usage in a portable radio, door bell, torches etc. The cost of recharging is negligible. Had I used non-rechargeable batteries I would have spent hundreds of pounds on replacements and filled my black bin with the dead batteries.
Non-rechargeable batteries should definitely be discontinued.

But that only means that the equipment you use them in is suitable for rechargeable batteries – there are some items that just do not work properly with re-chargeables.

If manufacturers were obliged to produce equipment designed for use with rechargeable batteries, this would solve a lot of problems. I have a Braun shaver that is over ten years old and it still runs for a week on a charge.

Rechargeable batteries need to be user-replaceble rather than built in, to avoid users throwing away equipment because the rechargeable batteries have failed. When my shaver batteries finally do expire I’ll have to throw it away or get out the soldering iron and fit new ones because it would cost too much to have this done professionally.

Patricia Wood says:
26 January 2011

I am not having fun with rechargeables. I bought a Uniross charger, around £20, and some expensive rechargeable batteries. The batteries have to be charged for 19 hours. (My mobile phone takes less than 20 min). One pair have lasted 5 months, one pair 1 month, one pair only 10 days, before needing recharging for another 19 hours. They don’t work in my computer mouse. They have been different makes so did I buy a duff charger? At the moment I am back to disposables. Of these the best lasted 7 months and the worst 3 weeks.
As to the charger, I knew nothing about chargers when I bought it and this one does not indicate when the batteries are charged. It says you should remove them after the specified time but not why.

Batteries don’t always make a good connection, so it is best to buy a charger with a separate indicator light for each battery being charged.

A set of batteries can be useless because one has failed or deteriorated. A multimeter/voltmeter or even a torch bulb is useful to identify a faulty battery. It is best not to keep sets of batteries together so that different capacities and ages are not mixed.

Many types of cordless mice work fine with rechargeable batteries, and perhaps manufacturers should be obliged to design produces compatible with rechargeables.

Mobile phones use lithium batteries and control circuitry matched to a specific type of battery. Domestic chargers are simpler and can be used with different types of rechargeable (NiCd and NiMH) of various capacities. A fast charger could overheat lower capacity batteries, causing leakage.

Feeling the temperature of batteries on charge can be helpful. They often get quite warm when fully charged. One of a set that remains cold is either not being charged (due to a poor connection) or it is faulty.

The other aspect of this issue which I am sick and tired of banging my head on a brick wall about in parallel arguments such as the CFL lightbulb debate and the boiler scrappage scheme, is that everyone argues the pro’s and con’s based on just ONE aspect of the matter. In this case everyone is arguing about the benefits or drawbacks of throwing away disposable batteries on a regular basis. No one has really answered the point, made by a number of contributors above, that we need to consider the relative impact on the environment of using BOTH types of battery.

Rechargeables contain far worse “nasties” than disposables so we need to understand how many disoposables of a given type have to be disposed of to have the identical impact as just one of the same size of rechargeable. We’ need to know this for all the different chemical make-ups of rechargeables too.

Then we need to consider the amount of mains electricity wasted by over-charging rechargeables or leaving the charger plugged in when the batteries have been removed – the energy industry reckons that the amount of power used over night every night by chargers left plugged in with nothing to charge, by users who are too lazy to pull out the plug or switch off the switch, i.e. enough to light an office for a week. How does this waste of electricity, and the environmental impact of generating it, compare to the impact of throwing away disposables?

And that’s before we consider the fact that some users will want to use rechargeables, find that their particular appliance won’t work with them, so throw away a good appliance (land fill, WEEE, blah blah blah) and buy an alternative that will use rechargeables.

We are not on a level playing field and the reason for that is that we are not given sufficient information to make informed judgements. A few people have the specialist knowledge and the level of education in specific fields to fill in some of the gaps for themselves, but the majority of the population doesn’t even know that the gaps exist, and why should they? The public should be given the information that they need, not have to carry out extensive personal research just to find it out for themselves. Isn’t that what institutions like Which?, the Carbon trust, The energy Saving Trust, etc are supposed to do?

Tom Hawkins says:
30 January 2011

It sounds as though there might be a place here for a recognisable logo or badge that manufacturers could display on the box of a battery powered device to say ‘this equipment works with rechargeables’. That would help consumers put pressure on the manufacturers. At the moment manufacturers can get away with being lazy and tell us ‘do not use with rechargeable batteries’ in the small print of the instruction leaflet, which you can’t see until you’ve bought and opened it. Toys seem to be especially bad for this…

Rechargeable batteries often do proclaim their capacity in mAh, but more isn’t always better – achieving a higher capacity in the same size means compromising somewhere else and as I understand it often means the self-discharge rate of the battery is increased – so they’ll hold more charge to begin with but lose it more quickly. At the same time chargers are sold on how fast they can charge, but fast charging means high charging current which is bad for the battery and reduces its capacity. For best results from rechargeables, get the ‘hybrid’ types (unless you always use them immediately after charging) and get a decent charger that doesn’t charge too fast (look for one with separate indicator lights for each cell that tell you whether it’s charging, charged or faulty). Again, this is an area where consumers could be better informed, so it’d be great to see these issues covered in a future Which review of batteries and chargers.

Hi Tom, thanks for your comment – and your excellent suggestion. We liked it so much we made it this week’s comment of the week on the homepage!

We need both rechargeable and disposible. They suit different applications.
Battery hungry items like kids toys, a torch you use a lot and perhaps cameras suit rechargeables.
Things you don’t use very often suit disposible.
A typical AA rechargeable battery delivers 1.2 volts against the disposibles 1.5 volts, not usually an issue but it can be, I’ve got a digital camera thats a bit fussy. Rechargeable batteries lose charge over time so when you need that item you don’t need too often it won’t work, door bells are a typical example.
Then of course remember the capacity of a rechargeable ( between charges) is lower than a disposible.
Finally rechargeables don’t last forever about 400 cycles is the very best you’ll get with efficiency dropping off well before that level is reached.

In conclusion both have their place, at least untill rechargeable technology improves.