Battery Basics

Wake up, open your laptop, check the voicemail on your smart phone, pick up the remote to switch on the news. Batteries are all around us, untethering our lives from cords that plug into the wall. But what is the external cost of battery usage? Is the environment paying the price for our convenience? Is your pocketbook?

Batteries contain heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel. When batteries are thrown into the landfill, they can contaminate the environment. When incinerated, certain metals might be released into the air or can concentrate in the ash produced by the combustion process. When batteries are recycled, they are broken down into their components so that new batteries can be made. If batteries go to the landfill, they are compacted by heavy machinery, break open, and spill their contents into the environment. The battery acid and heavy metals inside seep into the water table, where eventually it will contaminate our drinking supply.

One way to mitigate the impact of batteries on the environment is to purchase rechargeable batteries and to recycle your old, used batteries. Find a recycling center for batteries using call2recycle's search tool. Another way is to use plug-in electronics. Knowing when to pull the plug or or keep the prongs can not only save you money, it can be good for the environment.

Rechargeable Batteries

In an increasingly mobile world, there are plenty of uses for batteries. The trick is to know how to use them properly, and how to dispose of them with the least impact on the environment. Any appliance, tool, or device that uses batteries can also take rechargeable batteries. New uses like laptop computers and electric cars are driving rechargeable battery technology into a new age. Some rechargeable batteries last for years, and if you're interested in saving money, a small investment in a battery charger is good for your pocketbook and good for the environment.

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Power Tools

Power tools stepped into a new era when rechargeable batteries were invented. Having a few rechargeable battery packs on hand means you'll always have power when you need it, and you won't be tethered to the wall. Rechargeable batteries can be used in a wide range of power tools and lawn-care product, including grass trimmers. Most battery-powered tools use packs that can be used in multiple tools—another way to save money.

Get the most from your battery packs by following these tips:

  • When you get a new battery, follow the instructions and charge the battery for at least the recommended time in the manual.
  • When your battery starts to lose power, switch it out for a spare. Completely draining the battery can shorten its lifetime.
  • Peak performance of a battery is usually after 4-5 charging cycles.
  • The optimum temperature range for rechargeable batteries is 40° - 85°, so avoid charging batteries when the temperature is outside this range.
  • Leaving the battery pack in the charger won't harm the battery, but it's best to leave it out and let it cool to room temperature before use.

Small Appliances

Many small appliances are now battery operated, and most come with rechargeable batteries already installed. If they don't consider making the upgrade!

  • Hand-held vacuum cleaners
  • Hand mixers
  • Blenders
  • Electric toothbrushes
  • Shavers
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Laptop Computers

It might rely heavily on its battery, but laptop computers are actually 80% more energy efficient on average than their desktop counterparts. If you're constantly toting your computer to work, coffee-shops, or the park, there's no way to get around using its built-in rechargeable battery. That's what it was made for! But there are some good laptop battery practices that will save you money not only in energy costs, but they will also prevent frequent battery replacements, which can be expensive.

  • Don't be plugged in when you don't need to be. Even if it's sleeping, your computer will suck energy from the grid. This is usually referred to as "phantom power," which can account for up to 10% of all energy usage in a typical home.
  • Investigate the energy settings on your laptop. Screen brightness and sleep timers help to conserve energy, but wireless capabilities use power, too, even when you're not connected to a network. If you want to save on your battery life, turn off everything you're not using.
  • Apple recommends not leaving your laptop plugged in all the time, since batteries like to have electrons flowing. It also recommends completely charging and discharging your battery once a month.

Hybrid or Electric Cars

Some controversy surrounds the transition to hybrid or electric vehicles and their reliance on large batteries. Opponents of the idea argue that creating, using, and destroying vehicle batteries is worse for the environment then burning fossil fuels in the form of gasoline. However, the batteries in hybrid or electric vehicles are far more advanced than the car batteries from the days of old.

The most widely used hybrid car battery is lead-acid, because of its low cost. The lifetime of a hybrid or electric car battery is typically 8-10 years or around 100,000 miles, but some tests show a battery can last 200,000 miles. When it is time for your battery to be replaced, rest assured that lead-acid batteries are easily recyclable.

Battery Recycling

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Batteries are essential for many of our every-day activities, and we can be responsible battery-users by properly recycling all used and dead batteries instead of throwing them into the landfill. Batteries must be recycled properly, and you can find out where to do this using this search tool. When batteries are recycled, they are broken down into their components so that new batteries can be made. If batteries go to the landfill, they are compacted by heavy machinery, break open, and spill their contents into the environment. The battery acid and heavy metals inside seep into the water table, where eventually it will contaminate our drinking supply.

Recyclable battery types include:

Lead-Acid Automobile Batteries

Ninety-six percent of all lead-acid batteries are recycled. Almost any retailer that sells lead-acid batteries collects used batteries for recycling, as required by most state laws. Reclaimers crush batteries into nickel-sized pieces and separate the plastic components. They send the plastic to a reprocessor for manufacture into new plastic products and deliver purified lead to battery manufacturers and other industries. A typical lead-acid battery contains 60 to 80 percent recycled lead and plastic.

Non-Automotive Lead-Based Batteries

Gel cells and sealed lead-acid batteries are commonly used to power industrial equipment, emergency lighting, and alarm systems. The same recycling process applies as with automotive batteries. An automotive store or a local waste agency may accept the batteries for recycling.

Dry-Cell Batteries

Dry-cell batteries include alkaline and carbon zinc (9-volt, D, C, AA, AAA), mercuric-oxide (button, some cylindrical and rectangular), silver-oxide and zinc-air (button), and lithium (9-volt, C, AA, coin, button, rechargeable).

  • Alkaline and Zinc-Carbon Batteries: Alkaline batteries, the everyday household batteries used in flashlights, remote controls, and other appliances. Several reclamation companies now process these batteries.

  • Button-Cell Batteries: Most small, round button-cell type batteries found in items such as watches and hearing aids contain mercury, silver, cadmium, lithium, or other heavy metals as their main component. Button cells are increasingly targeted for recycling because of the value of recoverable materials, their small size, and their easy handling relative to other battery types.

  • Rechargeable Batteries: The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) Exit EPA, a nonprofit public service organization, targets four kinds of rechargeable batteries for recycling: nickel-cadmium (Ni-CD), nickel metal hydride, lithium ion, and small-sealed lead. Its Call2Recycle! program offers various recycling plans for communities, retailers, businesses, and public agencies.

Source: EPA

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