Batteries Bad for Earth, Bad for Budgets

No one warned me that becoming a parent would make me the biggest consumer of batteries on earth.

Swings, bouncy seats, music-playing mobiles and monitors all require disposable batteries and use them up with astounding speed. That's on top of the other things in the house, like flashlights, remote controls, a wireless keyboard and mouse and so on, that need batteries. All told, I find myself in Radio Shack ( RSH) almost monthly to get 12-packs of AAA and AA batteries. And we haven't even entered the stage of battery-powered toys yet.

According to the GreenYour ... Web site, Americans buy some 3 billion batteries a year, or 32 per household. About two-thirds of these wind up in the trash, where cadmium, nickel and lead can leach from landfills into groundwater or be released into the air and water during incineration.

Those stats are enough to make me feel a twinge of guilt with every oscillation of my daughter's swing and click of my mouse.

A few baby items, like the monitors, can be battery-operated or plugged in, which made me wonder about the relative cost and environmental impact of these respective power sources. It also made me wonder about rechargeable batteries. Colton Dirksen, co-founder and environmental director of Ecomii, a Web site that offers environmental advice on household issues such as battery use, says plugging in is "hands down the way to go."

First, batteries have to be manufactured and packaged, and that wrapping goes into the landfill alongside the batteries. The packages are shipped to the store and you need to drive to the store to get them. And then there is the issue of all those toxic metals that seldom get recycled.

Dirksen points out that it takes three kilowatts of energy to generate one kilowatt of electrical power. "Electricity is not a clean source," he says, unless you're certain that some or all of yours comes from renewable sources and not the typical coal-fired plant.

And then there is the cost. According to Battery University, battery-powered energy costs anywhere from $68 to more than $400 per kilowatt-hour. Electricity costs from 7 to 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the Energy Information Administration. You don't really need to know more than that, do you?

If you don't have the plug-in option, however, rechargeable batteries are worth considering. GreenYour ... reports that demand for rechargeables is growing twice as fast as that for disposables, but they still account for only one in five battery purchases in the U.S.

Rechargeable batteries are like compact fluorescent bulbs. They cost a lot more up front than their conventional counterparts, but their extended lifespan makes them far more cost efficient in the long run.

One of the writers at money-saving Web site TheSimpleDollar -- a fellow parent, not surprisingly -- takes you through the costs of stocking up his house with rechargeables and compares that to the cost of continuing to use disposables. He found that even with the purchase of a top-of-the-line charger and expensive batteries, the rechargeable option began saving him money within two years.

Target ( TGT) sells what I would consider to be a starter pack from Duracell ( PG) that includes a charger and AA and AAA batteries for $25. Home Depot ( HD) and Best Buy ( BBY) also sell rechargeables from Energizer ( ENR) and other makers.

Plugging in a device is always the best choice, but when it isn't an option, rechargeable batteries really do keep going and going and going, instead of just going to the landfill.

Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at her Web site.

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