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Last updated: 16 April 2024

Are Rechargeable Batteries Friendly or Harmful to Our Environment?

Rechargeable batteries have become a staple in our daily lives, powering everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. But are they as environmentally friendly as we think?

The global market was estimated at £82.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach around £146 billion by 2032, expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.88%. This growth is driven by the increasing demand for electronic devices and the shift towards clean energy. 

China is the leading producer of rechargeable batteries, accounting for 77% of the total production capacity in 2022. Poland and the United States follow, each contributing 6% to the total production.

While rechargeable batteries offer a more sustainable alternative to disposable batteries, their use and disposal require consumer commitment. A study by the Polytechnic Institute of Milan found that a rechargeable battery needs to be charged about 50 times to offset its environmental impact. This means that, To truly benefit the environment, users must be dedicated to using them regularly and ensuring they are properly recycled at the end of their life. 

This article delves into the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries, exploring their production, use, and disposal and the balance between sustainability and convenience.

How eco-friendly is rechargaable batteries?

What Do We Mean With Rechargeable Batteries Exactly?

Rechargeable batteries, also known as secondary cells, are a type of electrical battery that can be charged, discharged into a load, and recharged many times. Unlike disposable or primary batteries, which are fully charged and discarded after use, rechargeable batteries can be used multiple times, making them more cost-effective and environmentally friendly. 

Rechargeable batteries come in many different shapes and sizes, and they are used in a wide range of applications, from powering small devices like smartphones to stabilising electrical distribution networks. 

They are made from several combinations of electrode materials and electrolytes: 

  • Lead–acid, 
  • Nickel–cadmium (NiCd), 
  • Nickel–metal hydride (NiMH), 
  • Lithium-ion (Li-ion), 
  • Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4), and 
  • Lithium-ion polymer (Li-ion polymer)

The most common types of rechargeable batteries include Lithium-ion (Li-ion), Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH), and Lead-Acid, each with specific applications, advantages, and limitations. 

Types of Rechargeable Batteries

Battery TypeAverage Lifespan (Years)Common Uses
Lead-Acid3-5Vehicles, Backup Power
NiCd3-4Power Tools, Emergency Lighting
NiMH3-5Digital Cameras, Handheld Devices
Li-ion3Smartphones, Laptops

Global Usage and Production

The demand for rechargeable batteries is surging worldwide, driven by the increasing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs), renewable energy systems, and portable electronic devices. The global market reached approximately £89.5 billion in 2023 and is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.

ContinentCountryKey StatisticNote
AsiaChina79% of global EV Li-ion battery productionLeading producer
EuropeVariousExpected 5-fold revenue increase in the battery value chain by 2030Rapid growth
North AmericaUnited States$5.5 billion allocated to rechargeable batteriesSignificant market

These statistics show that rechargeable batteries are a significant and growing part of the global economy, particularly in Asia-Pacific and North America. 

The Environmental Impact of Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries are more environmentally friendly than disposable ones, as they reduce the number of manufactured and disposed of batteries. They are also integral to our daily lives, powering various devices, from solar batteries to smartphones to electric vehicles.

However, these batteries' production, usage, and disposal have significant environmental implications. Additionally, charging batteries requires energy, which can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions if the electricity used is generated from fossil fuels.

Environmental Impact of Rechargeable vs Disposable Batteries

ImpactRechargeable BatteriesDisposable Batteries
Raw Materials UsedMore toxic materialsLess toxic materials
Resource DepletionLowerHigher
Manufacturing ImpactLowerHigher
Use ImpactLower if charged about 50 timesHigher
Energy ConsumptionHigherLower
Disposal ImpactHigher if not recycledLower
Overall ImpactLower if used to full potential and recycledHigher
Source: Science Direct, EPA, UK GOV, Nature

This table summarises the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries compared to disposable batteries.

The impact of rechargeable batteries  is often overlooked.

What is so bad about Rechargeable Batteries for the environment?

Rechargeable batteries are made from several combinations of electrode materials and electrolytes. Hefty metals like lead and cadmium can harm the environment if not properly disposed of or recycled. 

While they can be used multiple times, reducing the number of batteries that need to be manufactured and disposed of, they are made from more toxic materials than disposable batteries. If a rechargeable battery is used only a few times and thrown away, its environmental impact can be worse than a disposable battery. 

What is the impact of rechargeable batteries? 

What is the total impact per year?

The production of rechargeable batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, contributes significantly to global carbon dioxide emissions. For instance, each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of batteries produced generates 150 to 200 kilograms of CO2, based on the world's predominantly fossil fuel energy mix. 

About 40 per cent of the climate impact from the production of lithium-ion batteries comes from mining and refining battery materials and manufacturing the cells.

This means producing a 30 kWh battery would generate around 5 tonnes of CO2.

Impact per day

Daily, the use of rechargeable batteries contributes to environmental degradation. The electricity used to power these batteries, especially in developing economies like India, is often from thermal sources, including fossil fuels like coal, which accounts for 60% of the country's total emissions.

Furthermore, the disposal of batteries in landfills can release toxins, including heavy metals, into the soil and groundwater. A study from Australia found that 98.3 per cent of lithium-ion batteries end up in landfills, increasing the likelihood of landfill fires that can burn for years.

Impact per usage

The environmental impact also varies depending on their usage. For instance, if a rechargeable battery is used only a few times and then discarded, its environmental impact is worse than a disposable battery. 

In the transportation sector, the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles has a larger carbon footprint than gasoline-powered vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries can help ease reliance on fossil fuels in the renewable energy storage sector. Still, the extraction processes for the minerals used in these batteries can cause erosion and pollution. 

This is because a rechargeable battery can replace hundreds or even thousands of disposable batteries over its lifetime. 

Top Largest Economies of Rechargeable Batteries

The largest contributor to the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries is China, where most of the current lithium-ion battery manufacturing is concentrated. The countries' electricity generation remains dependent on coal and other polluting power sources, which increases the carbon footprint of battery production. 

The rechargeable batteries market is a significant sector in the global economy, with China, the United States, and Germany leading the way. The market size was estimated to expand at a CAGR of 5.88% during the forecast period from 2023 to 2032.

Other notable economies markets include Japan, South Korea, and India. These countries have strong electronics and automotive industries, which drive demand for rechargeable batteries. 

RankCountry2027 Projected Battery Cell Manufacturing Capacity (GWh)% of Total
6South Korea1892%

Leading Players in the Market

The rechargeable batteries industry is dominated by several key players, including East Penn EnerSysl, Exide Technologies, Johnson Controls, LG Chem, and Samsung SDI Co. Ltd. These companies significantly impact the market, contributing to its growth and development.

According to research, these companies are the leading players as of 2024

Are Rechargeable Batteries Toxic?

Yes, rechargeable batteries can be toxic. They contain heavy metals such as lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury, which harm the environment and human health. For instance, lead is a neurotoxin that can accumulate in the body and damage the nervous system. 

Cadmium, another toxic heavy metal found in rechargeable batteries, can cause health issues such as metal fume fever, pneumonitis, and pulmonary oedema. 

Rechargeable lithium batteries, commonly used in electronic devices, contain potentially toxic materials, including metals like copper, nickel, lead, and organic chemicals. These batteries are generally safe but can present a fire risk when over-charged, short-circuited, submerged in water, or physically damaged. 

Battery TypeToxic ComponentsEnvironmental ImpactHealth HazardsFire Risk
Li-ionLithium, CobaltModerateModerateHigh
This table summarises the toxic components, environmental impact, health hazards, and fire risks associated with different rechargeable batteries.

Can You Recycle Rechargeable Batteries?

Yes, you can recycle rechargeable batteries. These batteries contain valuable materials that can be recovered and reused, reducing the need for new raw materials and minimising environmental impact. 

Recycling conserves resources and prevents hazardous substances from these batteries from contaminating the environment. For example, only about 5% of Li-ion batteries are estimated to have been recycled, and the declining prices of Li-ion batteries have made recycling relatively more costly. 

In the United Kingdom, the Waste Batteries and Accumulators Regulations aim to increase battery recycling and reduce the environmental impact of battery disposal. The regulations require battery producers to finance the collection and recycling of waste batteries, including rechargeable ones.

In the European Union, the Battery Directive sets targets for collecting and recycling all types of batteries, promoting a more sustainable approach to battery use and disposal.

Battery TypePercentage Recycled

Therefore, recycling at a specialist recycling centre, hazardous waste collection site or an electronics retailer offering recycling services is recommended. Single-use and rechargeable batteries can be taken to recycling centres to be recycled into new products, preventing hazardous waste and environmental harm. 

Recycling Programs and Initiatives

Several companies worldwide specialise in recycling lithium-ion batteries, a standard rechargeable battery. 

For instance, Call2Recycle is a nonprofit organisation leading the charge in the United States, offering free recycling services at various drop-off locations nationwide. 

Recycling InitiativeDescriptionServices Offered
Call2RecycleA leading nonprofit organisation in the US for battery recyclingFree recycling for rechargeable batteries at various drop-off locations
Batteries Plus BulbsRetail chain offering battery recycling servicesfor rechargeable batteries
EcobatKnown as the world's largest recycler of batteriesA global leader in lithium battery collection and recycling management
LG ChemA major battery manufacturer developing recycling technologiesBuilding a closed-loop system for battery recycling

Globally, efforts to increase the recycling capacity for rechargeable batteries are underway, with countries like China and the United States leading in lithium-ion battery recycling. 

Are Rechargeable Batteries Biodegradable?

The short answer is no; most rechargeable batteries are not biodegradable. They are made from various materials, including metals and chemicals, that do not naturally break down in the environment. 

While over 94% of the materials can be recycled, this does not equate to biodegradability. 

However, rechargeable batteries are generally more eco-friendly than disposable ones because they can be reused, reducing the number of batteries in landfills. Some rechargeable batteries are made with a percentage of recycled materials, and many can be recycled at the end of their life. 

Can You Burn Batteries?

Burning batteries, including rechargeable ones, can harm the environment and human health. The process releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change

Moreover, the toxic substances released can contaminate soil and water sources, harming wildlife and disrupting ecosystems. 

Are Rechargeable Batteries Sustainable?

Rechargeable batteries are generally more sustainable than disposable ones. One rechargeable battery can replace thousands of single-use batteries, significantly reducing waste and carbon footprint. 

However, the sustainability is not without its complexities. The production of rechargeable batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, can have significant environmental impacts. These include the environmental cost of mining lithium and other materials, the energy-intensive production process, and the challenges associated with recycling. 

Its sustainability hinges on proper use and disposal. Batteries charged less than 20 times may contribute more to environmental problems like ocean acidification and human toxicity than their single-use counterparts.

What Are Alternatives?

The environmental and ethical concerns, particularly lithium-ion batteries, have led to the search for more sustainable alternatives. Some explored alternatives include sodium-ion batteries, calcium-ion batteries, and organic rechargeable batteries. 

They have a significantly lower environmental impact, with 28 times less impact on global warming, 30 times less on air pollution, nine times less on air acidification, and 12 times less on water pollution. 

Let's explore some of these alternatives and assess whether they offer a better solution.

Alternatives to Lithium-Ion Batteries

  1. Sodium-Ion Batteries: Sodium-ion batteries function similarly to Li-ion but use sodium ions as charge carriers. Sodium is more abundant than lithium, potentially making these batteries cheaper and less environmentally taxing.
  2. Lithium-Sulfur Batteries: Offering higher energy density, lithium-sulfur batteries could be a game-changer. However, they currently face challenges with longevity and stability.
  3. Solid-State Batteries: These batteries replace the liquid electrolyte with a solid, enhancing safety and potentially increasing energy density. They're seen as a promising future technology for EVs.
  4. Hydrogen Fuel Cells: Not a battery in the traditional sense, hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. They're clean but face infrastructure and efficiency challenges.
  5. Aqueous Magnesium Batteries: Utilising magnesium ions, these batteries are less harmful and potentially more abundant than lithium-based options. However, they're still in the research phase.
  6. Zinc-Ion Batteries: Zinc-ion batteries are being explored for their safety and abundant zinc. They could offer a viable alternative for grid storage and other applications.

Here is a table summarising the key alternatives to lithium-ion batteries:

Battery TypeKey Advantages
Sodium-Ion BatteriesAbundant, less expensive than lithium
Magnesium-Based BatteriesMore powerful and potentially safer
Solid-State BatteriesImproved safety and performance
Zinc BatteriesSafer, cost-effective, abundant metal
Lithium-Sulphur TechnologyCheaper, lighter, widely available
Graphene BatteriesEnhanced conductivity and sustainability
Manganese Hydrogen BatteriesSafety, cost, environmental impact

Is It Better Than Alternatives?

To determine whether they are better than their alternatives, we must consider several factors, including environmental impact, cost, energy density, and practicality. Here's a brief comparison:

FactorRechargeable BatteriesAlternatives (e.g., Sodium-ion, Solid-State)
Environmental ImpactModerate to HighPotentially Lower
CostVariesPotentially Lower for Some Alternatives
Energy DensityHighVaries; Potentially Higher for Some
PracticalityHighVaries; Lower for Emerging Technologies

Rechargeable batteries, particularly Li-ion, offer the best energy density, cost, and practicality balance for most consumer applications. However, alternatives like sodium-ion and solid-state batteries hold promise for reducing environmental impact and reliance on critical minerals, albeit with current limitations in cost, energy density, and technological maturity. 

Environmental Impact Compared to Everyday Things

We will be comparing the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries on everyday items. We will consider factors like global warming potential, air and water pollution, and resource depletion to do this. 

For instance, producing a single lithium-ion battery can have a greater impact on global warming and use more cumulative energy demand (CED) than producing many everyday household items. Yet, when evaluating their entire lifecycle, rechargeable batteries often emerge as more sustainable due to their reusability and the potential for recycling.

To put the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries into perspective, let's compare them with everyday household items and practices:

  1. Plastic Bags: Single-use plastic bags have a lower initial environmental impact but contribute significantly to ocean pollution and wildlife harm. Rechargeable batteries, if properly recycled, have a lesser effect on wildlife and ecosystems.
  2. Disposable Batteries: Disposable batteries may have a lower production energy requirement but contribute to higher waste and pollution due to their single-use nature. Despite their higher initial environmental cost, rechargeable batteries can be more sustainable with regular use and proper recycling.
  3. Gasoline Vehicles: The operation of gasoline vehicles emits significant greenhouse gases. Electric vehicles (EVs) powered by rechargeable batteries offer a cleaner alternative despite the environmental costs associated with battery production.

Environmental Impact Comparison

Environmental AspectRechargeable BatteriesDisposable BatteriesGasoline Vehicles
Resource DepletionHigh (due to mining)ModerateLow
Energy ConsumptionHigh (manufacturing)LowerN/A
PollutionModerate (if recycled)High (toxic waste)High (emissions)
Water ResourcesLower over lifecycleHigherHigher
SustainabilityHigh (with proper use)LowLow

Statistics, Facts, and Figures: Rechargeable Batteries

Rechargeable batteries become integral to modern life, powering everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Source: Statista, UNCTAD, GP

Lithium mining activities have been reported to consume 65% of the water in some regions.

The value of rechargeable batteries is expected to CAGR 5.88%  between 2022-2032.

Due to the booming market, projections suggest it could reach £146 billion by 2032.

The demand for Li-ion batteries alone will increase almost sevenfold between 2022 and 2030.

China dominates battery production, holding 77% of the global capacity.

The output of a 30 kWh battery generates about 5 tonnes of CO2, with a Tesla battery exceeding 17 tonnes.

The cost of NiMH batteries is approximately £1.50 per battery.

In Australia, only 2–3% of Li-ion batteries are recycled.

The EU has set collection targets for portable batteries, aiming for higher recycling efficiency.

Although rechargeable batteries are cost-effective over time and reusable up to 1,000 times, their recycling rates are low.

Production and Use by Region

The production and use of rechargeable batteries vary significantly by region. Here are some key statistics:

  1. Asia-Pacific accounted for a significant market share in 2020, with China and Japan being the world's second and third-largest players in rechargeable batteries.
  2. China dominates the world's electric vehicles (EV) lithium-ion battery production capacity, accounting for 79% of the global total. The United States follows with 6.2%, and Hungary with 4%.
  3. In terms of lithium production, the three largest producers are Australia, Chile, and China.
  4. Some of the critical battery tech manufacturing countries include China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Germany, and India.
Facts about rechargeable batteries

Rechargeable batteries can be more environmentally friendly than disposables if used and recharged regularly. 

Rechargeable batteries are made from more toxic materials than disposable

50 Charge cycles are needed to offset the environmental impact of rechargeable batteries.

Single-use batteries require more natural resources to produce.

The rechargeable battery market is growing, driven by technological developments, R&D investments, and favourable government policies

Frequently Asked Questions about Rechargeable Batteries

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