Dear Dot: Where do batteries go when they die?

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Dear Dot,

I seem to have a lot of battery-operated gadgets in my home. Should I switch over entirely to rechargeables?

–Laura, Vineyard Haven

Dear Laura,

The short answer to your question is — yes, switch out those disposable batteries for rechargeable ones, so long as you actually recharge them! 

Like many other waste-reducing innovations, whether or not they achieve their potential is a matter of human behavior. I called up Dr. Yinghe He, Professor at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. His advice to you — buy those rechargeable batteries. If you throw them out after only a couple of uses, however, it defeats the purpose. “If the user does not use the rechargeable batteries as intended, of course it is going to cause problems,” Dr. He tells us. 

It’s crucial that you dispose of any batteries appropriately, though. Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District offers four drop-off locations in Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah. There is a special container at each of these facilities where residents can leave their rechargeable batteries. The facilities then transfer battery waste to Fall River to be recycled. The great news — dropping off your used rechargeable batteries won’t cost you a dime! 

Martha’s Vineyard Refuse District does not, however, offer recycling services for disposable batteries. These days, most disposable alkaline and zinc carbon batteries do not contain hazardous material and, according to the state of Massachusetts’ Recycle Smart initiative, throwing these in the trash is the best option. 

Some types of disposable household batteries — such as the lithium batteries found in watches, cameras and remote controls — do contain hazardous material. As these batteries decay in the landfill, they leak toxic heavy metals into the soil, which can eventually contaminate our water supply. 

Using rechargeable batteries can actually be worse for the environment than disposable ones if you do not reuse them enough, according to a 2016 study. These reusable iterations contain more toxic material than their disposable predecessors. Researchers found that using rechargeable batteries 20 times or less can lead to more polluting acidification, human toxicity, and particulate matter escaping into the environment. 

The most urgent goal is keeping as much of this toxic material out of landfills as possible, which you will do if you use rechargeable batteries enough times. But, because rechargeable batteries retain the same amount of toxic material no matter how many times you use them, Dr. He notes, “Make sure to recycle rechargeable batteries too.” 

Though it might be a while before you bid your rechargeable batteries adieu — some rechargeable batteries can be recharged up to 1,000 times.

Does this mean fewer trips to the store and some spare change? This is yet another example of how ditching single-use items can do your wallet some good. “If you use them as intended, you should be coming out on top in terms of cost as well,” says Dr. He. 

So what type of batteries should we be buying? According to Dr. He, lithium ion batteries are going to be the most common batteries for smaller household devices. These exist in standard sizes, such as AAA, AA, C, and more. A Wirecutter review found that, since most of these batteries have the same components, various brands such as Energizer, Amazon Basics, and Panasonic have comparable results. 

In the end, it all boils down to how diligent you are about reusing reusable stuff. I’ve grown quite accustomed to disposable batteries over the years and could easily mistake a precious rechargeable for its archaic counterpart, ditching it long before its expiration date.

But all changes take a bit of getting used to. Next time I take a sip of tap water I’ll be thinking: it’s worth rewiring our brains to reuse. 

Chargingly,

Dot

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