Alkaline Case Study

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Ray-O-Vac Leak Proof Unit Cell

Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Uses and Applications

Leclanché Cell  Source

Leclanché Cell Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an age when demand for rechargeable devices such as cellular phones, laptops, and iPads is growing rapidly, it is no surprise that the demand for primary batteries is not what is used to be. Today, single-use batteries are often used in flashlights, wall clocks, radios, toys, and remote controls. In the past, however, such single-use batteries were used to power much larger devices. For example, the Leclanché cell, a wet cell version of the zinc-carbon battery, powered early telephones.7 The term "wet cell" means that the battery contains a liquid electrolyte rather than the paste or powder electrolyte found in a dry cell. Primary batteries were even used to power the earliest automobiles. Robert Anderson, the creator of the first electric carriage in the 1830s, ran his invention on single-use batteries.8

High demand for rechargeable devices, advances in rechargeable batteries, and growing environmental concerns that promotes principles such as reuse, mean that the decline in single-use batteries sales will likely continue in countries such as the United States. Although the use of single-use batteries is falling in countries such as the U.S., they are still of great importance in developing countries.12 In places without an established electrical grid, or where the supply of electricity is unreliable, rechargeable devices are of less use. Demand for the 9-volt alkaline battery is particularly high because it can be used to run medical devices.13 Even in developed countries, single-use batteries are still relied on in situations like power outages. Ray-O-Vac battery varieties


Minamata Bay, Japan - Aerial

Minamata Bay, Japan Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Short History

The history of single-use batteries dates back to the earliest experiments with electricity. This section highlights five key turning points in the history of the alkaline-manganese battery.

Percent of Battery Sales by Size in 2000

Figure shows sales of the six most popular alkaline battery sizes in 2000.17 Source: Mergers and Acquisitions:Text and Cases.

Developing Standards

Often we think of batteries as a product of the modern world, but the first battery dates back approximately 2,000 years, taking the form of a 5-inch long clay vessel containing a copper cylinder in an iron rod.20 In the early twentieth century, the size of disposable batteries was standardized, using the nomenclature we are still familiar with today, with many different sizes of batteries. The sizes AA, AAA, and D are the most popular sizes now.10 With the standardization of batteries in the 1920s, it became easy for manufacturers to include them in a wide array of devices, making them a staple of products from radios to flashlights to remote controls. Ray-O-Vac Advertisement

Developing the Alkaline Battery

In 1866, George Leclanché invented the Leclanché cell. The Leclanché cell was a "wet" cell, which meant it had to be handled with great care to avoid spilling the liquid electrolyte. By 1888, Dr. Carl Gassner had invented the first "dry" cell battery, which was a more durable version of the Leclanché cell and easier to commercialize. A "dry" cell was less prone to breaking and leaking. Despite the improvements in dry-cells and the rapid growth of the dry-cell battery market, zinc-carbon cells were still prone to leakage, corrosion, and temperature variations.4 It was not until 1940 that alkaline-manganese batteries were invented by Lewis Urry of the Eveready Battery Company (now known as Energizer).15 In many cases, the alkaline battery, which became common in the 1950s, has replaced zinc-carbon batteries. Alkaline batteries, although more expensive, have a higher energy density, a longer shelf life, and reduced leakage.4

Trouble along the way: leaky batteries

Even in the 1920s, years after their invention, problems with corrosion plagued batteries, shortening their lives and making them unreliable. By the 1930s and 1940s, researchers had engineered better sealing methods to help prevent corrosion, but the generation of zinc-corrosive hydrogen gas became a problem as a result. To reduce the generation of hydrogen gas, battery manufacturers added mercury to the cells, which served as to inhibit such unwanted reactions. Alkaline batteries, despite their advantages, had one disadvantage: they required even more mercury to keep hydrogen generation in check. With batteries being sold by the billions, the small amounts of mercury in batteries became a significant concern. In 1985, batteries accounted for 55% of all mercury use in the United States.14, 21

The mercury story

After disasters such as the contamination of Minamata Bay in Japan, when residents suffered mercury poisoning after eating the shellfish harvested from the bay, awareness surrounding the dangers of mercury grew.14 In the case of batteries, the primary concern was that batteries disposed of in the trash could either contaminate the soil, if disposed in a leaky landfill, or the air, if burned in an incinerator. Symptoms of mercury exposure range from headaches to brain damage and paralysis, depending on duration and concentration of exposure.73 Mercury threatens the environment as well, killing wildlife and reducing fertility. One of the common ways through which humans are exposed to mercury is through the fish or wildlife that they eat.74 In response to such concerns, the industry took the lead on developing mercury-free batteries in the late 1980s and early 1990.24 Policymakers followed up with strict laws prohibiting mercury use in the European Union in 1991 and the United States in 1996. In part, as a result of the phase-out of mercury in batteries, global mercury production fell 68% between 1990 and 2013.26

Mercury use in Batteries in the U.S.

Mercury use in Batteries in the U.S. has fallen significantly since the peak of its use in the 1980s. Source: USGS.21

Battery Recycling

Even though batteries were invented over a century ago, innovation continues. Between 1960 and 2000, the capacity of an alkaline battery increased by over 60%, and batteries are still undergoing improvement.4 In February 2015, Energizer released the EcoAdvanced battery, a AA battery that contains 4% recycled battery material, and almost 10% recycled active ingredient. The amount of recycled active material in the EcoAdvanced is an impressive accomplishment, considering the high standards for purity necessary to produce a battery with a 12-year shelf life.27

Key Materials

One of the qualities that makes alkaline batteries unique is that, unlike many other types of batteries, the alkaline battery is made from relatively common raw materials, such as manganese and zinc, which are used by other industries in much larger volumes. However, the specific forms of these materials is often unique to the battery industry. For instance, although manganese is a common industrial commodity, the electrolytic manganese dioxide used in batteries is a highly specialized product. For these reasons, tracking the human health and environmental consequences of producing the very specialized materials used in such batteries is difficult. Although it is easy to research manganese, zinc, or iron mining, it is difficult to learn about the particular manufacturing processes most relevant to batteries.

What is in an alkaline-manganese battery? Measured by weight, the average AA battery is made up of electrolytic manganese dioxide (40%), nickel-plated steel (18%), powdered zinc (18%), potassium hydroxide (11%), graphite (4%), and brass (0.03%).3 Part of what makes an alkaline battery perform reliably is the high level of purity of the raw materials. Extensive processing is necessary to achieve battery grade standards.

One noteworthy point is that the materials that make up the alkaline battery are not highly critical. In the case of manganese and zinc, for instance, supply is of very little concern.28 However, it is not so clear how readily available the supplies of the specialized materials, such as electrolytic manganese dioxide, are.29 The U.S. battery industry has raised concerns about the trade in both electrolytic manganese dioxide and nickel-plated steel in recent years.

Electrolytic Manganese Dioxide (EMD)

In modern commercial alkaline battery cells, electrolytic manganese dioxide (EMD) is used in the cathode. EMD has largely replaced naturally occurring manganese dioxide since the mid-twentieth century because it is very pure. This high level of purity is essential for peak performance and for reducing hydrogen gassing at the anode (a problem for which mercury was once the imperfect solution).4 By using EMD instead of naturally occurring manganese dioxide, the capacity of the alkaline manganese cell increases 2 to 3 fold and the need for mercury is reduced.30 However, while using EMD increases battery performance, producing it is environmentally intensive. High levels of processing are necessary to transform the raw ore into battery-grade EMD, making it the most energy intensive material to produce for an alkaline battery.3

EMD was invented in 1918, and first produced for use in batteries by the U.S. Burgess Battery Company in the late 1930s.30,31 Even though it was available, and had the potential to improve battery performance, it was years before the market for EMD in dry cell batteries took off. Despite the performance advantages, many devices of the time did not require a battery of higher capacity, and most consumers did not find it economical to purchase a more expensive battery that they did not really need. Demand for EMD-based batteries began to accelerate in the 1950s, when portable electronics grew in popularity and large scale production of EMD began in Japan.30, 31

Production of EMD is not a simple process since it must be synthesized, most often from manganese ore. Manganese ore can be found in many parts of the world, but the largest producers, in descending order, are South Africa, Australia, China, Gabon, and Brazil, from which the ore must be exported to EMD plants.32 EMD synthesis begins with the reduction of manganese ore to manganous oxide, from which it then may be dissolved in sulfuric acid, treated to withdraw impurities, and undergo electrolysis (a process by which an electrical current is used to separate metals and ions to make a more pure product).4 Since EMD is almost exclusively used in alkaline batteries, demand for batteries drives the demand for EMD, which, in turn, is driven by demand for portable electronics.33

World's largest producers of Manganese

Source: USGS.

World Manganese Ore Production in 2012

South Africa is the number one producer of manganese ore in the world. Source: USGS.32

Although EMD is an integral part of the alkaline manganese battery, the alkaline battery industry is responsible for a very small amount of total manganese consumption. It is estimated that less than 7% of U.S. apparent consumption of manganese was by the battery industry in 1990, and that number is following significant growth in the industry. From 1980 to 1990 alone, the demand for manganese for use in batteries more than doubled as the demand for alkaline batteries grew.34 Demand continued to decrease until the 2000s, when it dropped suddenly, likely as a result of the shift to rechargeable batteries and a decline in U.S.-based manufacturing.

Manganese Consumption in Batteries

As demand for alkaline-manganese batteries has risen over the years, so has the consumption of manganese in batteries. Source: USGS.21


In the alkaline battery, powdered zinc serves as the anode, which is the negative electrode in the cell.4 As the battery discharges, the zinc becomes zinc oxide in an irreversible chemical reaction.1 Zinc production is the second most energy intensive component of the alkaline battery. Even though it is the second most energy consuming material, it still only requires about half the energy of electrolytic manganese dioxide to produce. However, zinc is the most burdensome material in regard to its impact on ecosystems and human health, largely due to the potential toxicity associated with production.3

About 90% of the zinc produced today comes from a mineral called sphalerite.35 Sphalerite is often found along with (and can frequently be mistaken for) galena, an important source of lead.36 Because they are so often found together, they are also mined together, which is the reason that production of zinc can be so hazardous to both human and ecosystem health.

Producing battery-grade zinc requires extensive processing. Pure zinc is produced by thermal distillation (a process using water's ability to evaporate at low temperatures) or by electroplating, from which it can subsequently be turned into a very pure powder. However, it is extremely difficult to produce pure zinc. Even very pure battery grade zinc often contains around 500 ppm of lead.4 Most of the world's zinc production, as of 2012, occurs in China. After China, the next top producers are Australia, Peru, India, and the United States. However, the battery industry as a whole is responsible for less than 2% of total zinc consumption in the U.S..1

Top Zinc Producers Worldwide, 2012

Source: Top Zinc Producers Worldwide, 2012. USGS.

World Zinc Ore Production, 2012

China greatly outpaces other countries in the production of zinc ore. Source: USGS.37

Potassium Hydroxide

Potassium hydroxide is the electrolyte in an alkaline battery. The addition of potassium hydroxide is one of the key improvements since the Leclanché battery, because it is more conductive and less prone to hydrogen gassing. Also it allows for the alkaline battery to be a dry-cell battery since potassium hydroxide comes as a paste.4

In order to produce potassium hydroxide, potassium chloride must be electrolyzed. Electrolysis is the process by which electrical currents are used to separate elements, or ions, in a solution. Although potassium hydroxide is a critical part of the alkaline battery, only about 6% of potassium hydroxide used in industry goes into alkaline batteries.38

Although the chemicals in alkaline batteries are not as toxic as those in lead-acid or nickel-cadmium batteries, they are not without risk. Potassium hydroxide is a chemical of particular concern since, over time, it can potentially leak. Even though technological advances have reduced leakage, it still occurs.39 Since potassium hydroxide is an irritant and corrosive, it should be handled with care. Most importantly, if it must be handled, gloves should be worn, and it should never be inhaled, ingested, or have any contact with the eyes.38

Site Case Studies

The materials that go into alkaline batteries come from all around the world. Due to the secrecy of the battery industry and its suppliers, and the ubiquity of the materials used in alkaline batteries, it is difficult to know just where the materials come from, but we can explore places that are likely to have been important to the production of single-use batteries.

Although electrolytic manganese dioxide is the most prevalent chemical in the alkaline battery, zinc poses the most environmental and social justice concerns, largely because it is often mined with lead. Reducing the hazards associated with mining of zinc is one of the strongest arguments for recycling alkaline batteries.

Tri-State Lead and Zinc District

Tri-State Area: Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri

The Tri-State Lead and Zinc District is an area at the junction of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. Spanning 1,188 square miles, it was the world's most important source of zinc and lead at the start of the 20th century. Considering the large scale of zinc production, it is likely that many early batteries were made with zinc from the Tri-State area. Producing that zinc came with significant costs for mine workers, the community, and the environment. These costs are still felt today.40,41

Covering almost 50 square miles, the Tar Creek Superfund Site is one of the largest designated hazardous waste sites in the nation. During eight decades of active mining (from 1891 to the 1970s), the site produced almost 8.8 million tons of zinc and 1.7 million tons of lead, but at a significant cost to the surrounding ecosystem and residents.42 The region's soil has high levels of cadmium and lead pollution. Some neighborhood yards had lead levels above 500 ppm and posed a health risk to residents, especially children. Alarmingly high levels of manganese were also found in water, which is worrisome due to its neurotoxic properties at higher levels of exposure.42

Chat piles, miners, conductor mine

Left: Chat piles. Middle: Miners. Right: Conductor Mine, Joplin, MO. Source: James Turner

The Superfund site is not only a cause of environmental concern, it is also a social justice issue. Because of the unhealthy living conditions, many residents were forced to leave behind their homes, their once-thriving businesses, and the lives they had built for themselves during a government supported buy-out of existing homes between 2007 and 2011.

Red Dog Mine

Red Dog Mine

Red Dog Mine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.46

Red Dog Mine, Alaska Map

Located in a remote area of northern Alaska and run by Teck Cominco, Red Dog mine is responsible for 5% of global zinc mining production, and 79% of U.S. zinc mine production. This makes it one of the three largest zinc producers in the world, and the number one zinc producer in the U.S..43

Managing pollution has been a challenge at Red Dog. In the early 1990s, lead soil levels outside of the mine's port site were found to be as high as 36,000 ppm and zinc levels as high as 180,000 ppm. To put these numbers in perspective, Alaska's soil standards are up to 1,000 ppm for lead, and 8,100 ppm for zinc. Air pollution has also been an issue for Red Dog. In 2001, the mine was fined $300,000 for violating air quality limits.44

Concentrations of Zinc and Concentrations of Lead graphs

Concentrations of zinc and lead outside of Red Dog Mine have been far greater than Alaska's standards permit.44 Source: Boulanger and Gorman (2004).

Pollution at and around Red Dog poses a particular threat to the native Alaskans, some of whom are members of the Inupiaq tribe, who rely on resources and land in the nearby area. A persistent concern has been the threat of contamination due to spills from ore haulers traveling from the mine to the port.44 In December 2000, an accident lead to a spill of 40 tons of zinc concentrate. Foul weather caused the spill itself, and also made cleaning up the spill a difficult task. Many were worried that the wind would carry the zinc concentrate to nearby waterways.45 A waterway of particular concern is the Wulik River, which flows close to the mine and supplies the village of Kivalina with drinking water.44

Top 4 US Toxic Waste Producers

Red Dog Mine is generates more toxic waste than any other enterprise in the U.S..47 Source: EPA.

Overexposure to zinc through consumption can lead to dizziness, nausea, abdominal pain, anemia, and vomiting. However, inhalation, which is of greater concern at the mine, can lead to chest pain, fever, nausea, and muscle soreness, but luckily these symptoms disappear three to four days after exposure ends.74 Although it is not healthy to be exposed to large amounts of zinc, of greater concern is lead exposure. Lead is especially dangerous for children who are still growing and developing. Depending on the severity and duration of exposure, it can lead to anemia, hypertension, reproductive system damage, and nervous system and brain damage.75

According to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, Red Dog Mine was the number one releaser of toxic waste in the U.S., ahead of the second largest releaser by over 100 million pounds of toxic waste.47 Although the mine has extensive pollution control technologies and practices in place, many issues surrounding waste management have arisen during its operations.

In 1998, concern grew about the waste discharge into nearby waterways. Red Dog was required to reduce its release of pollutants on the basis that there was a risk of polluting waterways and affecting aquatic life.48 In 2005, the company paid a settlement of $33,000 for spilling ore from a conveyor belt into to the Chukchi Sea at the port from which Red Dog distributes its products.49 It was also the subject of a Supreme Court case in 2004, when Teck Cominco officials did not want to comply with the EPA's policy of equipping the mine with the best available technology to reduce water pollution.50

Although the Red Dog Mine is far more advanced than the mining operations in the Tri-State region a hundred years ago, it offers an important reminder that even with years of technological advance, mining is not a completely safe enterprise, either for the environment or people. The pollution at Red Dog is both an environmental and social justice concern. Although it is located in an extremely remote location, it poses a particular threat to the native Alaskans who live near to and depend upon the land for subsistence activities, such as hunting, gathering, and fishing.

Red Dog Mine

Red Dog Mine. Source: Alaska DEC.

Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company

Dongling, China - Map

The Dongling Lead and Zinc Smelting Company is located in the Shaanxi province of China. Over the years, Dongling has been accused of causing water, air, and crop pollution.51

The consequences of mining and smelting in places like Red Dog or Dongling often go unnoticed. But when problems do draw attention, it is often because of acute threats to people, especially children. In the case of Dongling, tensions spilled over in 2009, when more than 615 of the 713 children in the area tested positive for lead poisoning. Frustrated by the company's lack of safety measures, furious parents took matters into their own hands, tearing down the company's fences and blocking traffic. Some even went as far as stoning trucks delivering raw materials to the plant.51 Much to the people's regret, the protest only lead to a temporary shutdown.52

For those living around Dongling, there are no easy solutions. Many families cannot afford to move away. Local officials promised to relocate families living nearby within two years, but two years is a long wait for families with young children that are most at risk.51

The story of Dongling has become a common one in China. China's rapid industrialization has come with a heavy price--lives lost and countless more endangered, along with severe environmental damage. Industrialization is inextricably tied to demand for raw materials, such as lead and zinc, worldwide. Zinc production ultimately worsens the air pollution in China, and often contaminates what was once clean drinking water.53 Although zinc may provide us with many modern day conveniences, batteries being only one of many, it is not without a price.

Manganese in South Africa

Assmang, Africa - Map
Assmang Smelter

Assmang Smelter. Source: IOL News.54

Although manganese is an element that the human body needs to function, overexposure can affect the nervous system, stunting intellectual development or leading to symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.55 For instance, a study conducted in Mexico showed that children who lived near a manganese mine had significantly higher levels of manganese concentrations in their hair and lower IQs, suggesting a potential relationship between the two.56

Since almost 80 percent of the world's manganese reserves are in South Africa, it is no surprise that it was the number one producer of manganese ore in the world as of 2012. It is highly likely that much of the manganese ore that becomes EMD for use in batteries is sourced in South Africa.55 The Assmang smelter, for example, has drawn attention in the past decade. In 2007, 30 employees at the smelter exhibited symptoms of manganese poisoning, and although only five were officially diagnosed, the company was very reluctant to give compensation, and only ended up giving it to three workers.57

This incident was not the only time when the company has been scrutinized for workers safety issues. The Assmang smelter did not begin to test employees for signs of illness until 2005. That was after 46 years of operation, all long after the toxicity of manganese had been discovered. Moreover, the inspections in 2005 likely only began in that year because of a special report that had aired that year on manganese toxicity. For many of the workers, watching the television report was the first time they had learned that manganese could be dangerous.58 The smelter only started warning its employees of the occupational hazards the next year, in 2006, when they distributed the first pamphlet explaining the risks of working with manganese.59

Raw Materials Company Inc. (RMC)

Port Colborne, Canada - Map

Just as sourcing raw materials is an important piece of the battery story, so is end-of-life management. Raw Materials Company Inc. is a battery recycling company in Port Colborne, Ontario that receives all of the batteries collected by Stewardship Ontario. It recovers 84% of the metal content of batteries, nearly twice that of Pennsylvania-based Inmetco. That makes Raw Materials one of the most efficient battery recyclers in North America.60 Compared to the next best technology available, using Raw Materials Company Inc.'s method of recycling for all of the primary batteries sold in North America would save enough energy to power over 18,000 houses and prevent over 2,300 garbage trucks worth of waste (16,300 tons) from entering landfills.61

RMC uses a hydrometallurgical process to recycle alkaline batteries, which means that the facility uses water and chemicals in order to separate the components of the battery. Compared with a pyrometallurgical approach, which depends upon high-temperature processing, hydrometallurgical processes do not require as much energy, do not produce air pollution, discharge 14 times less water (water can be reused and recirculated in hydrometallurgy), and use a little less than half the energy.60

Despite the high-levels of recovery at RMC, the quality of the materials recovered are not high enough to close the circle on battery production. Unlike lead-acid batteries, which are recycled into new batteries, most materials recovered from alkaline batteries go to other end uses. The zinc, manganese, and potassium obtained by Raw Materials Company, for example, is reused in agricultural fertilizers.62

End of Life

One of the most common questions about alkaline batteries is what to do with them once they are spent. Should they be recycled? Should they be thrown in the trash? Is it safe to throw them in the trash? Does recycling offer any environmental benefit? In the past, most alkaline batteries were simply thrown away. But this is beginning to change as policies prohibiting disposal and requiring recycling are coming into force.

Is There a Benefit to Recycling Alkaline Batteries?

Battery Disposal

Source: James Turner

Does recycling alkaline batteries actually benefit the environment? There is no simple answer to this question because recycling policies, technologies, and practices are changing rapidly and often the benefits depend upon the particulars of how batteries are collected, shipped, and recycled.

For instance, if you live near Raw Materials Corporation in Canada, the benefits of recycling likely outweigh the cost. But what if you live in Arizona, and the spent batteries have to be shipped to Ontario or Pennsylvania for processing? Even battery companies send mixed messages about recycling. Duracell claims it is completely safe to throw away alkaline batteries in the trash.63 Energizer, on the other hand, states that throwing away batteries in the trash is only "allowed," and implies that there is a benefit to recycling.64

It is not uncommon to hesitate before throwing away batteries in the trash. Largely, that is because we are conditioned to believe that recycling is automatically the cleaner, greener, and better option, regardless of the product. Yet, questions remain about the efficacy of alkaline battery recycling programs.6

How Green is Alkaline Battery Recycling?

In 2011, the battery industry commissioned an MIT research team to examine the the net benefit of recycling alkaline batteries - weighing the environmental burdens and benefits - by conducting a full life cycle analysis.

The team compared the life cycle consequences of throwing batteries in the garbage with five different recycling scenarios. Three of the scenarios were those that existed in North America, one required shipment for processing in the European Union, and a fifth scenario was based on a hypothetical recycling program that used available technology. Each scenario was evaluated based on cumulative energy demand, global warming potential, damage to human health, damage to ecosystem quality, and damage to resources.3

The MIT research reveals that whether recycling batteries yields a net environmental benefit depends upon how batteries are collected, transported, and recycled, and which environmental impacts are most important. While recycling proved beneficial in some cases, it was more burdensome in others. For example, if people made special trips to recycling center just to recycle batteries, the environmental consequences of recycling single-use batteries almost always outweighs the benefits. If the attention is focused on reducing carbon emissions and contributions to climate change and energy use, then throwing the batteries away may be preferable. But if human or ecosystem health is of greatest concern, recycling alkaline batteries would often be the better option.

Regardless of the environmental benefits of recycling single-use batteries, it may still be a good idea for a municipality to offer a collection program. Some research indicates that that collecting single-use batteries could lead to up to a 25% increase in collection of rechargeable batteries (which are often more toxic or valuable), if they are collected simultaneously.65 In addition, as the scale and efficiency of single-use battery recycling increases, it has the potential to become a net environmental benefit.

Right now, only one single-use battery on the market explicitly re-uses recycled materials in new batteries - the Energizer EcoInvent battery. Unfortunately, however, there is very little information regarding how the materials in the EcoInvent battery are recycled, and whether the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.


U.S. Policy

In the U.S., one of the most prominent policies pertaining to alkaline batteries is the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996, which prohibited the sale of alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries with mercury in them. This is one of the few federal laws in the U.S. that applies to single-use batteries.66 Although most major battery companies had already phased out mercury prior to the policy, it made it mandatory for all battery manufacturers and importers.19 Most of the regulations applying to the end-of-life of single-use batteries are at the state level. The most noteworthy single-use battery regulations are those in Vermont and California. Vermont's 2014 Primary (Single-Use) Battery Law, was the first state law that requires producers of single-use batteries to finance the collection and recycling of their product.67 Primary battery policy in California is also unique because the California Universal Waste Rule makes it illegal to throw alkaline batteries into the municipal solid waste stream. It requires that batteries be taken to a designated facility such as hazardous waste disposal site, universal waste handler, or recycler instead.19, 67, 77

E.U. Policy

The E.U. has been a leader in battery policy since the enactment of the 1991 European Union Council Directive on Batteries. This policy limited the mercury content in alkaline batteries to 0.025% by weight. The main goal of the act was to reduce the toxicity of batteries.23 Ten years following implementation, the 2006 European Union Directive on Batteries and Accumulators was passed. This directive replaced the 1991 version, lowering the permissible mercury content to 0.0005%. Additionally, the directive established policies for collecting and recycling batteries: 25% collection rates by September of 2012 and 45% by September of 2016. The directive also set a goal of recycling 50% (average weight) of batteries that are not lead-acid or nickel-cadmium, a category including alkaline.25 E.U. member states were successful reaching the 2012 target, but there are concerns meeting the 45% target for 2016.68

Canadian Policy

In Canada, single-use battery policies have been developed at the provincial level. In British Columbia, for example, the Environmental Management Act: Recycling Regulation requires the collection of any battery in an electronic device.69 Like the 2006 European Union Directive on Batteries and Accumulators, the Act also set collection targets. B.C. hoped to reach a collection rate of 12% by 2010 and 40% by 2014. In order to help achieve these goals, the province contracted with Call2Recycle to develop product stewardship plan for the collection of spent batteries. To date, collection rates have fallen short of those goals. They reached 28% in 2014.70

In Ontario, the Waste Diversion Act of 2002 required Waste Diversion Ontario to develop and implement waste diversion programs. Ontario's Orange Drop Program, run by Stewardship Ontario, accepts single-use batteries for collection, along with other various items such as paints and fertilizers. All of these are potentially hazardous products, the collection of which prevents them from being disposed of irresponsibly or in ways that could harm humans or the environment. With over 2,500 drop off locations for batteries, the program makes disposal easy for consumers, which is key to success.72

Sustainability and the Future of Alkaline Batteries

With all of the conflicting information about throwing away, recycling, and using single-use batteries, it is hard to decide what role they might play in a more environmentally sustainable future.

Will recycling alkaline batteries make them more sustainable?

The ultimate goal for single-use alkaline batteries would be to make them recyclable, such that spent batteries could be turned into new batteries. With the 2015 announcement of the EcoAdvanced Battery from Energizer, such an advance seems possible. But, right now, it is clear that there is much uncertainty about whether the environmental costs of recycling batteries - collecting them, sorting them, processing them - actually outweighs the environmental benefits of reduced mining and processing of raw ore. Without further information, no one knows whether using recycled materials in alkaline batteries is actually beneficial, and in what ways it could reduce energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, or human exposure to toxicity. Much of this uncertainty is due to the lack of public information regarding the life-cycle consequences of sourcing, manufacturing, and disposing of batteries.

Would using rechargeable alkaline batteries instead of single-use alkaline batteries be a better choice?

Although the vast majority of alkaline batteries sold are for single-use, rechargeable alkaline batteries are available. Theoretically, yes, a rechargeable option would be a better choice for both the environment, and the consumer's wallet, because it is an initial investment that pays off in the long run and doesn't require the use of more materials. However, from a life-cycle perspective, it is also necessary to consider the materials used to manufacture the charger and the energy needed to supply it. Most problematic, however, is that one of the most important qualities of alkaline batteries is that they do not need to be charged. For example, an alkaline battery that the consumer forgot to recharge will not help in a power outage or be of any use to someone in a developing country without an electrical grid. If a rechargeable battery gets put in a device, and never recharged, then becomes more burdensome than a single-use alkaline because of the energy and materials that went into constructing the charger that then may or may not be used.

Are alkaline batteries fundamentally unsustainable considering how much energy they take to produce?

Arguably, yes. The estimated greenhouse gas emissions per watt of energy an alkaline-manganese battery provides are approximately 30 times that of the average coal-fired power plant.2 This can be a confusing fact since alkaline batteries do not emit any greenhouse gases during their use. It is during production that most of the emissions of greenhouse gases are generated.


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Updated: 9/1/2015