Lowering Our Battery Footprint: A Look at Personal Strategies and Emerging TechnologiesJan 31, 2024 09:26AM ● By Kelcie Ottoes
doomu from Getty Images/Vitalii Petrushenko from Getty Images/CanvaPro
Americans love their disposable batteries. Every year, they buy and discard about 3 billion of these small-sized power sources that keep cellphones, flashlights, toys and computer accessories running. Lithium-ion and alkaline batteries dominate the market due to their efficiency and versatility. While single-use batteries significantly tax the environment, advancements in production, lifespan and recycling can lead to a greener future.
It isn’t easy to create batteries. For one thing, minerals must be extracted from the Earth. Lithium-rich brine is pumped into evaporation ponds, and after the water evaporates, the concentrated brine is processed to harvest the metal. This practice can lead to the contamination of local ecosystems and water basins, toxic emissions and respiratory issues for people living nearby.
While sending any item to a landfill is problematic, batteries are especially complicated because they are made with toxic elements such as cadmium, lead, nickel and electrolytes, as well as other chemicals, all of which can leach into the soil and water system. In addition, lithium can ignite and release chemicals into the air. According to Heal The Planet, Americans create 180,000 tons of hazardous waste from batteries annually, including 86,000 tons from alkaline batteries and 160 million cellphone batteries.
Although alkaline batteries may legally be thrown out in the regular trash because they fall below federal hazardous waste standards, conscientious citizens recycle them when that option is available, as they contain dangerous elements, including lead. Button cell batteries used in watches and garage door openers contain tiny amounts of mercury and should be recycled. Rechargeable batteries should be taken to a local recycling facility that specializes in batteries.
“Sustainability is everything for battery manufacturers, despite what a lot of people think,” says Chris Groves, manager at Groves Batteries and the proprietor of TITAN Lithium. “Recycling is imperative to a sustainable market, as recycled materials can be put back into production chains at a lower cost.” A broad-ranging solution is a circular battery economy: a model of production and consumption that extends the life of a battery and its components as long as possible by sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling its materials.
Electronic Vehicle Revolution
Fourteen percent of new cars sold in 2022 were electric, up from less than 5 percent in 2020. By 2030 there will be between 145 and 230 million electric vehicles (EV) on the road. The federal government requires manufacturers to warranty that EV batteries will maintain at least 70 percent capacity for a minimum of eight years or 100,000 miles. Because EVs are relatively new, the average life expectancy of their batteries is not yet known. However, each time an EV battery is charged and discharged, it loses some capacity and eventually will need to be replaced.
Recycling old EV batteries will help keep up with demand and reduce their environmental impact. A report from the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2040, recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent EV batteries could reduce supply requirements for these minerals by about 10 percent.
Most retired EV batteries still have some storage and energy capabilities, even if they are not at their original power levels. Alternative uses for old batteries are being explored, including solar power storage, energy for streetlights or as backup generators in homes. One study in Nature Communications predicts that short-term power grid storage demand could be met by 2030 across most regions using old EV batteries.
Solutions for more sustainable batteries are being explored. “New chemistries are focused on using non-rare earth materials like sodium or sulfur, which we have in abundance and are a lot less damaging than lithium mines to extract,” says Groves.
Iron air batteries are currently being developed as energy storage. They are ten times cheaper than lithium batteries and use iron, one of Earth's most abundant resources. Lithium manganese iron phosphate batteries could be the only battery a car will ever need. They have a range of more than 600 miles on a single charge and a potential 2.4-million-mile lifetime. Solid-state batteries use lithium, but they generate more power and can take up to seven times more charges in their lifetime without the risk of explosion.
Tips for Battery Care and Recycling
Everyone can help make the most of their batteries with a few simple practices.
Disposable Batteries: Turn off devices and remove the batteries when they are not in use. Store batteries so they are not in contact with each other in a place that is below 72°F, but above freezing. Do not toss them out at the expiration date; this is when power starts to decline, but the battery is still usable. To recycle, batteries may be taken to a participating home-improvement store. Find nearby drop-off locations at Call2Recycl.org/locator or Earth911.com.
Rechargeable Batteries: Do not leave rechargeable batteries plugged in all the time and do not allow them to drain their power to zero. Power down devices to avoid extra use. On cellphones, turn off the location mode and use the lower-power mode and dim-light settings.Kelcie Ottoes is a writer for sustainable businesses and frequent contributor to Natural